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https://i1.wp.com/www.plain2013.org/uploads/4/5/8/9/4589105/header_images/1352307258.jpgThis October, come and hear the straight talk from the experts!

Plain Language Association International, the international association of plain-language, document design, literacy and other advocates, will be hosting its 20th Anniversary Conference in Vancouver.

PLAIN logo

The event stands to be a must-attend: You’ll hear from  speakers from all over the world including presenters from Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand,  Belgium, Sweden, Norway, and Britain. And of course, colleagues from Canada and the U.S. (including your humble blogger …).

The conference coincides with PLAIN’s 20th anniversary and International Plain Language Day on October 13.

We have a lot to celebrate! Won’t you join us?

> Learn more on the 2013 PLAIN Conference site, or

> check out the PLAIN website to learn about our work and members.

The Rights of the Reader

By Daniel Pennac, Illust. by Quentin Blake.

The other day I came across a link to this gem of a poster. It was linked from a well-known blog I follow called The Happiness Project, which mentioned the 1992 book of the same name (which I can’t wait to get my hands on as well!).

I love its simplicity and universal appeal — whether you’re a non-, weak, online, sometime, or voracious reader, you have these rights and likely recognize some of these behaviours in yourself.

And for those of us who make our living by communicating, I see this as a simple-yet-powerful communication tool: a Ten Commandments of Truths We Must Always Remember before we prepare something that we want (or need) people to read.

International Plain Language Day official siteAs part of SimplyRead’s contribution toward International Plain Language Day 2012, we created a short PowerPoint presentation: International Plain Language Day – Why it’s worth celebrating. It’s part of the ‘virtual celebration’ that continues beyond the 0fficial day this past October 13.

In it you’ll see examples that typify writing we see in business and everyday life, then After versions that demonstrate the value plain language adds. You’ll also get a few tips to help you design your information more clearly for readers.

Take a look, share it … use it however works to help people learn the value of plain language. Just make sure you use it as-is and say from whom and where you got it. (Yes, even we plain language people have disclaimers!)

And while you’re there, check out how much other impressive work is afoot to support clear communication around the world. Most of what you’ll find there was created recently – so you know it represents the the ‘latest and greatest’ on what plain language is, why it works, and who’s embracing it to improve their communications.

Our last post showed one of the hall-of-fame worst sets of instructions I’ve seen, in terms of their design.

A few days later, I picked up a set that had quite the opposite effect. So it seems only fair to share a really good one, too, especially since it’s likely to be read by the same audience: parents of children ages 7+.

What makes these so helpful?

While they still come in a pretty small package, these ones

  • are easy to read and navigate,  due to the clean typeface and large-enough type
  • have clear visuals to help you picture what playing the game looks like, and
  • use good subheads that help you recognize natural changes in topic, some of which contain more engaging calls to action (‘Let’s play,’ ‘You should have:’).

You can tell that this company takes the effort to ensure that their instructions make sense to befuddled parents like me, who can only get the straight dope on how to play without cheating if they read the instructions. You see, my daughter has her own version of some games, with rules that seem to evolve as she begins to fare worse in the game.

But then, you’ve got to watch out for those times she gets a hold of the instructions themselves. Despite how well-written this little booklet is, I’m still not completely sure I am playing correctly, since she’s clearly following in her mom’s editor footsteps … see for yourself:

Dark purple marker is NOT see-through!

Maybe she thought she was highlighting them?

The instructions below came with an mp3 player my daughter received for Christmas.

Look at the words in relation to my hand. How close to your face do you think you’d need to hold this, to be able to read it?

I think this is 4-point type

The designers might be thinking that only people under 20 need to read instructions for these products. Or, maybe their priority was getting them to fit into the tiny package the player came in.

Either way, they’ve clearly forgotten that most of their customers are probably grandparents or parents of younger kids (who got the cheaper model ’cause they were worried the kids would break the higher-end one).

On Mondays, as I’ve written, I usually spend an hour or more putting things in order, including a tour of the yard: doing a general tidy-up of any plants looking droopy or dead, and of any garbage that might have wandered in.

This week I zeroed in on all the extra growth that’s gathered around the edges of my front garden. I put in bordering stones a couple years back, but you wouldn’t have known it. So I’m yanking out handfuls of grass, weeds, spent blooms and other junk that’s been hiding them.

I’m also meditating on the workshops I have to plan starting a week from now. In helping the group sharpen up their writing, I’m working from the excellent book by Paul Brown and Alison Davis, Your Attention Please, which I just ate up before going on holidays (As I tweeted back then, it’s so good, I wish I’d written it).

But first, some thoughts on weeds.

I used to have a problem with removing weeds. When I first began to garden, I quickly learned to recognize what was one of my plants, and what was a weed: If it grew terribly fast and seemed to appear far beyond where I’d planted it, it was probably a weed. But I still had trouble with the idea of killing them. Especially anything that produced pretty flowers, as many do.

My front garden border - the stones have gone AWOL!

But as things started to evolve, I realized the garden can take on more of a jungle-like character, with the larger, windier roots choking out the meeker, more delicate ones. Even our desired perennials can cause this problem from time to time, once they’ve grown too large or spread too widely. A prolific peppermint I purchased for 99 cents has cost me several dollars worth of other plants, as their shallow talons wound round and strangled out everything else.

So I’ve learned to shut my eyes tight and just start hacking and yanking. After about a decade of summers, it’s even become somewhat therapeutic to reap destruction on certain parts of the plot in order to promote the overall greater good of the whole.

Uncovering the thicket in my document – and giving it some edge, too!

So this morning, as I’m yanking blooms, I’m thinking about the thicket of information – as Brown and Davis put it – that we all have to navigate through. One of their key points here is that even if what you write is admirable – all grammar correct, tone on-target, concise and informative, engaging and educational – you may still have produced something that no-one will use.

Why? Because we all have so many types of information constantly coming at us. And with all the new ways it’s transmitted, much of the info that comes to us we didn’t seek out ourselves. So now, more than ever, most people will not pay attention to information that forces them to wade through the forest to find the trees. It may be that you’ve selected an attractive range of trees and arranged them elegantly – but the problem is there are just too many of them.

Who among us in the course of our demanding days is going to sally their merry way through the scenic countryside when they can just hop on the bridge and get somewhere right away? We usually save those scenic drives for our holidays, when we have the time to savour the journey. (It’s not for nothing that Summer Fiction is known for being light, unchallenging reading). And with so much info now packaged to be as instant as mashed potato flakes, your lovely boxwoods just can’t compete.

So I see it as my job in my garden to help people looking at it appreciate its contents as a grouping – but also to pick out individual colours, shapes and textures that all say something important. Similarly, rather than creating a ‘dense thicket of impenetrable information,’ Brown and Davis remind us to be ruthless in doing away with a lot of padding – and sometimes even some really good stuff – and arranging things visually so that the person who sees it can readily appreciate what’s key.

And if it’s both focused and well-organized, chances are better that people will take the time to stop and look at everything you’ve put in front of them.

Last week I bought a funky-looking toy for my eight-month-old son. Along with the fact that he just loves it came a bonus with the instructions.

The small card – not much larger than a business card, but with rounded edges – managed to contain all of the key information in friendly, upbeat language. Only downside of course: the very small type.

But here was the capper. In about 8 point type, the final two lines read like so:

“Congratulations! You have managed to read this very tiny print.

You are a very patient person.”

How very refreshing! Happy Friday.

(BTW, the company is B. [pronounced B-dot] Toys. [the company does not seem to have its own website, but this link gives a decent description and pix of a couple other equally-funky-looking items from B.])

In between the time I’m spending with my infant son, I’ve had the chance to deliver several workshops. As ever their objective is to help people communicate more clearly and ensure their meaning reaches their intended audiences.

Chartjunk!A key topic appearing in the ones I’ve done lately has been How to better use the  time and tools you have within your workplace.

A prominent tool that – many will agree – can suck up a lot of time is PowerPoint. It’s now practically mandatory to truck a laptop along each and every time we will be addressing a group. Your audience will simply expect to brace themselves for the obligatory round of slides.

And possibly, if you’re nervous, unprepared or dispassionate about your topic, they’ll also expect to have to jar themselves awake while you read pretty much verbatim their contents.  How many times have you sat sweating and groggy at a summer post-lunch meeting, only to find you’re faced with another one of these presentations?

Well, bloggers, authors – heck, even the upper ranks of the U.S. military – have begun to advocate for a return to the kind of presentations where it’s the information and the speaker that need to be compelling, and not the number of fonts, effects and colours you can slap up there onscreen.

If you, like me, are of like mind that we have moved too far toward Death By PowerPoint, keep clicking to read more on how and why this has happened.

Godin, S. (May 27, 2010) Really Bad PowerPoint. Known marketing and business writer Seth Godin discusses the drawbacks of PowerPoint, and proposes his somewhat radical approach to using it (including limiting the number of words per slide to six).

Kawasaki, G. The 10 20 30 rule of PowerPoint (June 8, 2010) in Presentation Magazine. This writer says “a PowerPoint presentation should have ten slides, last no more than twenty minutes, and contain no font smaller than thirty points.” Some good reasoning and links to a host of other views on how to make memorable presentations.

New York Times, (April 27, 2010) We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint… Read about the number of high-ranking U.S. Military officials who are questioning (in some cases, banning) the use of PowerPoint in their meetings and strategy sessions.

Norvig, Peter (May 27, 2010) Gettysburg Cemetery Dedication in PowerPoint format. Tufte (see below) used this as a spoof to demonstrate how the constraints of the PPT can sap the life from otherwise compelling content.

Reynolds, G. (October 13, 2005) Steve Jobs’ presentation style…and all that jazz. In PresentationZen blog. Check out this article and others in the blog for insights on what makes for a good presentation (and how to get his 2008 book).

Sierra, K. (June 8, 2005) Stop your presentation before it kills again! in Creating Passionate Users.

And one book…a bargain at $7!

Tufte, Edward R. (2nd Edition, 2006) The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Connecticut: Graphics Press LLC (More on Tufte’s website, including ordering information…).

Viewing some recent posts, I’ve become painfully aware that the Blockquote feature of this blog theme produces very hard-to-read text: light-grey, in serif font,

like this – see, isn’t it hard to read?

So I’m having one of those ‘Physician, heal thyself’ moments, and sending apologies for anyone who’s had to squint at some of my posts (assuming any of you have stuck around after that!).

It may take some time, but I am on the quest for the right HTML code to correct these formatting glitches; and, I’d like to darken up and change the type in my headline on the title page for the same reason. If not, I might have to forgo this design – however otherwise clean and easy-to-use I find it to be – and maybe even purchase or create one.

Suggestions for how to fix things are welcome, so if you’re here, please don’t hold back!

It’s common to give electronics and other toys as gifts over the holiday season. If you have or have ever had kids, you know that part of family’s celebrations after gift-opening will include your quickly having to decipher the How-To’s for their gifts.

Many of my fondest childhood holiday memories were peppered with the strains of my mom and dad hurriedly trying to get through the instruction manual – peppering the air with some even more peppery language – as I impatiently sat there waiting for the magic to begin.

It’s no less the case for my 5-year-old, whose dad is, thankfully, the kind of guy who seems to welcome the challenge of self-assembly. I, on the other hand, stay far, far away while this is happening, knowing that my attempt to ‘help’ if he hits a snag will be met with our own generation’s saucy vernacular.

But I do help by filing all of the instructions (often along with the still-unsent warranty cards), for those inevitable situations where I have to look up what type of light bulb will be required for that &^$#@ toy she got for her birthday 6 months ago which has now stopped *^%$ working.

And this is where I found what I think is the 2009 award-winning example of badly-designed toy instructions:

Picture this as an 8 x 11" page, turned sideways

While it doesn’t use any crazy or complex formatting, this gem delivers most of the first-level instructions, like the ones on the righthand side of this sample, in 8 point font. Then, as you continue, the type gets smaller and smaller…down to what looks like 4-point type (as in the lefthand page above).

So why is small type such a problem?

Reading research says that for a public document, the typeface should be at least 12 points. With sans-serif fonts like the one used in this  case, you can often get away with going down to 11 points, but still risk losing some of those older or farsighted  folks who will have to squint or straighten their arms to hold the paper at a comfortable reading distance.

In my view, unless you have no choice – such as on drug product packaging (where you could produce a larger-print insert in any event) – there’s no good reason to shrink the type below that size.

One might think there are economic reasons for their design choice, such as that they wanted to keep paper and printing costs low, or make the manual seem less cumbersome to readers. But if you look at the scan here, there’s clearly lots of unused whitespace that would better be employed raising the type size. This is especially true when you consider how many more people are having kids in their 40s and 50s; and then think of the vision challenges for their grandparents, aunts and uncles!

Technical writers often lament the fact that people using products ask, er, unnecessary questions. Their acronym for the common response to such questions is ‘RTFM!’, which is short for ‘Read The ****ing Manual!’ I challenge those writers to try that in this case. Unless they have 20/20 vision, they’re going to find themselves doing more with this bleeping manual than just reading it.

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