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How’s this for plain language?

The last time I had a blog in 2007, the final post was called Gone fishin’. I was done with that first iteration and decided not only to go fish … but also to jump ship. I wasn’t digging the blog tool I’d chosen, and my business was taking up more of my extra time.

This time ’round, I’m in a similar boat (along with using too many nautical metaphors).

Writing and editing is what I do for my work the rest of the time, and it’s taken on greater steam.

Fortunately, I get to spend even more time writing for clients now as SimplyRead continues to take on larger-scale plain-language projects. And I’m ramping up to get involved in prep for International Plain Language Day October 13. But it’s lately left precious little time for Messages (and for you, if you’re a regular follower).

My bulb’s burnt out

But the clincher has been health-related. Along with the normal stresses of managing a business and life with two young kids in the expanding suburbs, years of battling chronic food sensitivities have doused much of my already-flickering flame. In plain language: to balance out my energy, I need to do fewer things better, eat more meat and carve out more Me Time.

So I’m taking a break from this space for awhile. But I continue to find and and share new info and critical thinking about plain language, simpler processes and communications. You’ll find me on the SimplyRead facebook page and on our Twitter feed.

Can’t figure out what to have for dinner? Maybe it’s decision fatigue.

Before I run off, here’s something that’s grabbed and held my attention. It turns out that I’m not alone in my predicament. If you ask researchers Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, many of us struggle with what they call ‘decision fatigue’ when their lives get too demanding.

This problem stems from the number of decisions each of us is faced with in today’s more complex, information-soaked world. Here’s my version: Daughter asking “Mom, what’s for dinner tomorrow?” while I respond to a client’s text, seated in front of my bank’s log-in screen, while my toddler pulls on my shirt and the phone buzzes in the background. According to Baumeister and Tierney, the commonness of multi-tasking – and the self-denial that come with all that stress – greatly impact on our personal self-discipline and willpower.

Common life patterns can compromise our willpower – who knew?

As discussed at length in this New York Times article, it’s harder for people in our times to maintain healthy willpower and make good decisions. Choosing among so many options all the time just burns out our brains.

Those of us who operate without enough money are more susceptible to decision fatigue, since the number of times we have to decide between tempting options goes up.

Does your willpower swim wit’ da fishes at certain times of the day?

Similarly afflicted are people who spend their days in back-to-back meetings, only getting to catch up at the day’s end when their energy is sapped.

Worse, they’re probably hungry (or more often, ‘hangry!’). Baumeister and Tierney say the amount of glucose is another key factor in these capacities.

This sudden limit to our better  judgment is a good explanation for why people on diets often break them: People who have to deny themselves so many things will eventually find their resources for self-regulation severely depleted … and their heads in the freezer scoping out the Haagen Dazs.

It’s also blamed for all those times we’ve heard about the outstandingly successful person who blew it all on that one bad decision … (now take a second to remember the last one in the Financial Times or TMZ that you went all schadenfreude about …).

Now that alone is a good enough reason for my Serious Need To Chill. If all these other brilliant people have gone off the deep end, I’d better get my own house ship shape lest I end up in the same kettle of fish.*

Let’s stay connected!

Until we get our blogging mojo back, if you like what you’ve seen here you can still enjoy tweets, news, musings and more to help you ‘cut the churn’:

* I should probably work on some new metaphors too, huh?


People often complain about the length, legalese and other excesses of Privacy policies. And, feeling thus, many of us will readily admit that we don’t bother reading them (along with those software update agreements so many of us click Accept on without reading word one).

In plain language writing workshops I recently for financial service professionals, I kept hearing that it didn’t matter how clearly you wrote some things, because most people were going to assume they weren’t worth reading and ignore them anyway.

I strongly believe that the more writers of policies and other complex info can show that they’re thinking of the reader, the better chance their customers will start taking time to read it.

So it was nice to get the email from Google this week, saying that they’d taken more than 60 separate privacy policies across their operation and replaced them with just this new one, which will take effect March 1.

Along with their obvious concern for making things simpler by cutting down on length considerably, I also noted on clicking through their previous privacy policies that their tone of voice in this document has also improved over the years. While it was progressive even for 12 years ago – using second-person voice to speak directly to the reader and fairly simple language – you can see the evolution of their customer tone of voice if you look at the 2000 version aside the update. Here’s an example:

Compare the opening lines of the 2000 policy:

Google respects and protects the privacy of the individuals that use Google’s search engine services (“Google Search Services”). Individually identifiable information about you is not willfully disclosed to any third party without first receiving your permission, as explained in this privacy policy (“Privacy Policy”).

To these, from the new one:

There are many different ways you can use our services – to search for and share information, to communicate with other people or to create new content. When you share information with us, for example by creating a Google Account, we can make those services even better – to show you more relevant search results and ads, to help you connect with people or to make sharing with others quicker and easier. As you use our services, we want you to be clear how we’re using information and the ways in which you can protect your privacy.

See how the new one is so much more direct? And given Google’s strength in the marketplace, I’m sure their legal team has poked every hole they can think of into it, and still found the new one to hold up legally as well. I cannot imagine them taking the risk of releasing this without doing their homework. (I’ve seen compliance officers worry much more about wordings that had a lot less risk attached to them should a legal challenge arise.)

What do you think? Leave your comment…

ImageU.S. regulators continue to work toward clearer credit card and loan agreements. Here’s the latest on their plans to test a simplified credit card agreement early next year.

I recently completed a training series where I presented to employees of Canadian banks on how to apply clear communication principles to their credit card and loan agreement documents. This is to help them continue their work to comply with the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (the Canadian regulatory body) clear presentation principles; the regulator will be doing preliminary review of their compliance in early- to mid- 2012.

A couple things I heard over and over from participants were these:

  • That even when they write and design key information and legal text in a customer-friendly way, the customers just plain do not bother to read them. I heard the word ‘customer irritation factor’ used to describe this.
  • That sometimes they suspect that info of being marketing material, and ignore it for that reason.

So I am thinking that those two thirds of cardholders who do not know the pertinent info about their cards may be there in part because they just plain don’t read that stuff, clear or otherwise – so that’s why they don’t understand their benefits and obligations. It’s similar to how we all just scroll down and
click the Accept button without reading the new user agreement when downloading upgrade software.

Can a good experience turn those irritated customers around?

My counter to this is that if the customer only looks at this info once they are having a problem meeting a condition or need to see how it applies to them, then making it easy to grasp will not only ensure they’re clearly informed; it will also leave a lasting impression from the ‘customer experience’ point of view.

It might even follow — over time, of course — that the more accustomed we become to seeing clear information from a company, the more we’re likely to feel less skeptical about reading their documents and using their services in the future.

What’s your take on this? Leave your comment…

Like many freelancers and women who’ve had babies, I’ve had several occasions over the years to interact with our country’s unemployment insurance program. Heck, I was on it for the first time way back when they still called it ‘UI.’ That was before a shift toward political correctness saw them change its name to ‘Employment Insurance’ from ‘UN-employment Insurance.’

Anyway, during one of those periods in 2003, I learned my benefits would be stopping several weeks sooner than I had understood to be the case.

When I went to the local office to ask why this had happened, I learned that – as with many things – the way they had worded my initial letter had been misleading. I then asked the gentleman why they didn’t explain things in greater detail in their letter to avoid misunderstanding. His answer: “If we gave any more information than we do now, you’d have to wait in a much longer lineup to get to see me.”

I was somewhat shocked at his candour, but not surprised at his answer.

An employment resource that cuts the churn…

So imagine my pleasant surprise at a recent ad sponsored by Employment Ontario, the provincial ministry responsible for training and helping people become more employable. It was in the back of Toronto’s NOW magazine, with the eye-grabbing header ‘Demystify E.I.’ Its first paragraphs read:

Before you decide to sell your Mac and your kidneys to make ends meet after losing a job, look into Employment Insurance (EI). It may be awhile before you find your next gig and EI will help you stay afloat…”

Simple, straightforward, and true to the reader’s situation. In other words, much more accessible! And enough to get me to go look at the online magazine the ad promotes. See for yourself here at Possibilities online magazine, which aims to be ‘Toronto’s online employment resource centre.’

A quick scan shows links to timely articles about employment in different industries, employment resources and connections with a host of community partners who also work to increase access to information in Toronto. And it’s all packaged in more of a magazine format using plain language, rather than the standard government-information format that makes the eyes tend to glaze over.

I’ve not always heard good things about the Ontario training ministry, but I suspect that this magazine is one of their more successful efforts. And it’s quite a contrast from what was available to folks back in 2003.

This morning, former Conservative MP Helena Guergis came out to the media to decry what she has called Stephen Harper’s ‘smear campaign’ against her, and to demand that he be accountable for the ‘nightmare’ she has endured over the past year since he ejected her from caucus. This was after allegations came out against her early last year saying that she and husband Rahim Jaffer,  also a former conservative MP, abused their positions and – among other things – were witnessed cavorting with prostitutes.

Now as many know, I am a classic softie, always ready to defend the ‘little guy’ against ‘the man’. And, despite the fact that I suspect her and her husband do feel more than a grain of self-entitlement, I was ready to empathize with her when she went on-camera today to try to clear her name and get to the bottom of the situation. After all, as she said, the constituents that elected her have a right to know the truth and to have a political leader who will account for his actions.

Part of my empathy came from knowing that part of what got her in hot water with Harper was a public outburst that she had during the time she had suffered a miscarriage. As a mom of two young kids who’s had this happen myself, I naturally felt for her – as many would who’d been in this boat. And as a good feminist, I tried to tell myself that her crying on-camera today was just a sign that – unlike male politicians who manage not to discredit themselves in this way – she is just allowing herself to show a justifiable amount of emotion given what’s happened to her.

But then, she had to go and play the trump card: her baby. At the end of the press conference – but not before the cameras stopped rolling – another woman handed her a baby and, with a nose-wrinkled ‘aw, isn’t that cute’ expression of maternal protectiveness, she told the press that little Xavier was ‘just a little tired.’

I’m still a bit conflicted about the way this made me feel. I find it mean-spirited and typically patriarchal to immediately slag her for crossing the business with the personal during a very public ‘work’ event (After all, isn’t baby-kissing the oldest political ploy in the book?) – women are often accused of not being able to focus on their jobs because they have to split their focus between career and motherhood. On the other hand, it’s often seen as a negative when a politician tries too hard to hide their human side (for example, I’ve heard Stephen Harper accused of being an ‘android’ for his seeming lack of ability to display any emotion except anger).

But it was the timing I didn’t like;  I felt manipulated, and as a mother of a young child, even a bit insulted. And, I suspect I will not be alone in having had my view changed by what felt like just one too many plays for sympathy on her part.

My poor mom.

She just bought a brand-new laptop, and while you’d think that it being brand-new would mean it was easier for her to use, this is not at all the case.

It’s got all the bells ‘n’ whistles: Windows 7, built-in Webcam and mic for Skyping, a gorgeous 17″ screen…you name it, it’s got it. And because she lives in a condo, she’s got the plug-and-play hi-speed cable connection. Heck, the workhorse I use for my work doesn’t do half of what hers does, and all she wants it for is to get her e-mails and print the odd photo.

But with all that sexy stuff comes the complication of having to understand why all the dialog boxes keep popping up, asking whether she wants to update this or load that.

My husband – who knows a lot about such things – actually recommended she buy this computer because it will take her into the future, even if she doesn’t at present feel that she wants to go there. And knowing that her computer literacy was limited, he went through and installed a virus checker and turned off some of the applications that require regular user intervention, before she started using it; he knew she wouldn’t use those, and that it would just intimidate and confuse her to see all these dialog boxes popping up or have apps running that she didn’t need. She already feels intimidated when she has to so much as unplug the thing, thinking that something will go wrong and she won’t be able to fix it.

But still, she phones us once in awhile to say she got a message and doesn’t know what to do with it: Mozilla is asking her if she wants the newest Firefox; she needs to download the newest Windows update; her printer software is warning her that it will only operate for free 24 more times, then she’ll have to buy a copy. It’s got her flustered, to say the least.

This with a very stripped-down system set-up.

At one point, my husband asked for the original Windows disks while he was setting up her system. She didn’t have them. “The computer comes with Windows installed,” she informed him. So no disks. If she wants those, she’ll have to pay more. And if she ever has a problem with Windows, she’ll be stuck without those disks. But no-one at the store told her that.

Oh, but there is help. The HP Advisor box keeps popping up, too, cautioning my mom that if she wants X to happen, she’ll have to do Y. Only problem: she doesn’t have the knowledge to know what they mean when they refer to her ‘browser.’ And because the message is coming from the HP Advisor, it must be important and well-meaning, so she’s tempted to just accept everything it says; except she can’t understand what she’s being asked to do.

“I didn’t know what it meant,” she tells me, “so I just kept clicking ‘No'”

Why haven’t we figured this out yet? Does everyone who purchases a computer and doesn’t speak technocratese still have to put up with the confusion caused by unhelpful pop-ups and computer dealers who don’t tell you everything you need to know?

My take on it, and what I told my mom? It’s partly because people who are even semi-comfortable with technology assume we’ve all gotten past the point of not knowing what ‘installed’ and ‘browser’ means. And, it’s partly because there are still lots of more tech-savvy folks who stand to benefit financially – and perhaps feel better about themselves – each time a person like my mom doesn’t know why her computer is not doing what she wants it to.

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…).

Looking at my last post, I am again encouraged by the ongoing effort of large organizations to make their processes simpler and more customer-friendly.  There’s growing mainstream acceptance of concepts such as plain language, usability and process engineering.

When I think back to when I first read Writing On Our Side and learned about the movement to translate Corporate English into plain English — wow, clear communication has come a long way, baby.

And yet, even with a general commitment to keeping information simple and customers happy, so many organizations still exist who fall down when it comes to how many processes play out in real life.

If you’ve dropped in before, you might know that I recently had a second child. And if you know me personally, you’ll also know that I get very frustrated with processes and policies that don’t seem to have much use except to make my life more difficult and complicated (in fact, I think this attitude might have lost me a couple jobs).

As someone who’s currently home with an infant and a six-year-old, while running both a business and a household, you can imagine how many processes I am subject to as I manage my life: with banks, clients, school and daycare, the stores and services I patronize, the list goes on. And given the young child factor, these processes are that much more protracted because I’m so often forced to put something down midstream in order to attend to the needs of the young’uns.

So I’m becoming damn tired of silly errors or oversights made by companies, which end up costing me effort and sometimes also dollars — I have precious little spare time as it is, so don’t need to have any more of it wasted.

Last year, I chronicled an abysmal experience with a traffic fine payment as one example of processes gone awry. Now I’m thinking it might be time for more rants like that one. I’m thinking it would also be a rather therapeutic experiment: the ability to vent while also exploring how various business processes can go wrong due to unclear communication. Watch for the first in the series soon. (I’m sure it won’t be long before something falling into this category happens yet again.)

As customers, employees or patients, for example, we have all been subject to policies and processes that have seemed backward and often also caused us a great deal of stress and wasted time and/or money.

Do you have any you’d like to vent about? Leave your comment…

Just before many of us broke for holidays, Ontario announced changes to the frequency and content of elementary school report cards.

Some might wonder if parents will feel less-informed when they start receiving two instead of three written report cards per year. However, the Ministry of Education is making moves to ensure that what does make it into the teacher comments is more meaningful for parents.

In York Region, where I have a five-year-old, the spokesperson said that the Board will “encourage teachers to move away from jargon and emphasize personalized, plain language.” He added that the “‘canned comments’ currently in use are frustrating and a missed opportunity for communication between home and school.

Well hallelujah, say I.

Eduspeak, or the road to he** paved with good intentions…

When I studied Adult Education and worked in literacy, I often became annoyed by the highfalutin’ language I noticed many of us (me included) using to talk about our work. Here we had chosen these fields with the intention of helping other adults improve their lives through expanding their knowledge and access to information – yet we were still using words that were inaccessibly to many of the people we were there to help.

Jargon does have its place between people in the same profession, but we all have to remember our audience once we start using it with people from outside that orbit. And this is not lost on the recipients of information. The above-linked article  points out that there’s been a growing call for more than ‘indecipherable edu-speak’ in student reports.

Not sure what people mean by eduspeak?

Good old Google turned up a couple sites I’d recommend for anyone wanting to better understand this phenomenon. I will note up-front that all of these are biased against this kind of language:

  • Writer’s Block, Summer 2004: The Roots and Perils of Eduspeak – The Language of Pretense and Evasion. This longish piece by NIVA Corporation gives you an in-depth overview, with references.
  • Eduspeak, the Dictionary. This was developed by someone advocating for home schooling, in protest against the language that aims to leave “us mere ‘lay’ parents” out of the loop. Note that I do not advocate for home schooling – I just like this reference.
  • Eduspeak Jargon Generator. This tool pokes fun at the mangled sentences this type of language produces, by offering you a way to instantly create your very own eduspeak.

Yesterday’s announcement that “unfriend” is the Oxford American Dictionary’s 2009 Word of the Year reminds me again of how negative concepts can become embedded in our parlance. The word does its job fine in the context of social networking sites, where the word “friend” has evolved into a verb. But it also brings home for me why it’s also important to use the positive voice when we write.

This doesn’t mean sugarcoating everything we say so that the message always leaves its recipient all warm and fuzzy. It does mean using wording that is uncluttered and future oriented – not looking back and telling people what they did wrong.

Consider this example:

From: I know you won’t make this mistake again.

To: I know you’ll improve next time.

Why write it forward?

Field tests of information have shown that people respond better to instructions that emphasize what to do, rather than what not to do. This is also true of pictorial instructions: the checkmark next to the preferred action was favoured over the ‘slash’ through the image of the undesirable action  (the classic No Smoking signs are likely the only exception).

Health promoters and educators have found that people whose first language was other than English have had trouble with the word “avoid” in health information. In general, negative constructions are harder to understand for second-language English speakers. It makes sense when you consider that negative constructions often mean adding more words, along with making  language sound pompous and overly complex – and driving up grade reading levels. Consider the example I posted a few weeks back.

So if you’re trying to simplify a dense piece of writing, you’ll often find that accentuating the positive puts you on the path to clarity. Here are a couple more examples of what I mean:

From: Failure to follow these instructions may result in further infection.

To: Please follow these instructions so that you can stay well.


From: Managers who submit their reports after the deadline may see them excluded from the final results statement.


To: Please submit your reports on time so that we may include them in the final results statement.


From: Avoid writing in the bottom section.


To: Only write in the top sections.checkbutton

Why do you think people love those Staples “Easy” buttons? ‘Cause they remind us of the positive – and give us the ability to bring some of it to our lives, even if only by hitting a dang button.

As I heard said in TD Insurance’s latest TV ads: Simple is good.

Want more examples of how to add more plus signs when you communicate? Read our post on How to accentuate the positive when you speak.

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