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Last week, we posted a link to one of the two performances of I Can Read Clearly Now (a.k.a., the Plain Language Ditty), the song we adapted from Johnny Nash’s original classic I Can See Clearly Now.

HealthNet video on YouTube: I Can Read Clearly Now

This bright and positive interpretation will warm any wintry mood!

Here’s the second way some literacy advocates out there took our words and Nash’s tune … and let their imagination do the rest! This next YouTube rendition was the brainchild of Coco Lukas and his fellow health literacy advocates at HealthNet, Inc., a community health resource center in Indianapolis, Indiana, whose mission is one I can sure get behind:

“To improve lives with compassionate health care and support services, regardless of ability to pay.”

Inspired by the song’s message at the PLAIN conference in Vancouver and the International Plain Language Day events on October 13, Lukas and colleagues went home and put together the colourful, positive video you see below – complete with young, enthusiastic voices … and animals! Have a look and a listen; it’ll no doubt add some warmth to your winter day.

Read, see and hear lots more from the conference on the official PLAIN 2013 conference site. Check it out – and also the Plain Language Association International site – to get the latest in research and insights about clear communication for all. 

Advertisements 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.

Sometimes, I admit, I work through my lunch hour even when working at home. But the Have you had your plus sign today?way I lighten things up is by flipping on yesterday’s Y&R episode. You really don’t have to turn toward the screen to know what’s happening with soaps, after all.

This is especially true of commercials which — as many know — are often louder than the show you’re watching and, during daytime TV, are often about healthcare, household or cleaning products (hence the term Soap Opera, right?)

But the other day, I heard three in a row that were refreshingly clear and positive. Which is probably why I actually easily could remember and write down their key slogans when they were long over:

  • The Ontario Government (really!), promoting the Flu Shot: “Making our immune system stronger.”
  • Rogers (yes, again, really!) advertising its new electronic home security package: “Stay connected. Stay close.”
  • The Canadian Sport for Life movement’s campaign to prevent childhood obesity and promote lifelong physical activity’s “Active for Life” campaign.

I’ve written here before about drug commercials: their droning background voices, scrolling tiny-type disclaimers and negative side-effect warnings. But the above three were nothing like that. With each slogan, you know immediately what you stand to gain. It’s the “WIIFM” factor we always hear about.

They’re also aspirational: A statement of the organization’s goal in providing the service, rather than a focus on what it’s trying to prevent (massive flu epidemics, risks to someone’s home and family and obesity respectively). And, as is often the case with strong messages, they’re all in the simplest of language.

You still may not feel that you want or need any of these options; and, if you’re like me, you’ll be skeptical about what’s behind the messages in these three ads. But at least you can easily grasp their expressed benefits.

Quite a contrast to other ads that focus on risk and make readers/viewers retain long streams of information about all of the possible negative consequences the buyer might face.

Today in an article I wrote, I got the classic example of a ‘reverse Before & After.’

Often plain language writers will use these types of examples: the original sentence or paragraph alongside the simpler, clearer alternative.

Well today, I got back an edit from someone I’d interviewed for an article about a technical medical subject. His edit – or After version – looked more like what I would use as a Before. Read for yourself:

My version:

The study launched in September intends to better understand these syndromes to help paediatricians identify them – and set patients on the path to proper treatment sooner.

His version:

The study launched in September intends to gather new data about the presentation of these disorders while raising awareness in the medical community.  It is hoped that earlier identification of patients will also facilitate initiation of effective treatment.

This is one of those situations where a writer needs to tactfully defend their original choice, while ensuring the reviewer understands the reason for the simpler language. Wish me luck!

A few days ago I met with a couple health messages for the public that were striking in their contrast with one another.

First, the fun one!

The newest awareness program the Canadian Cancer Society’s got out for colorectal screening is, well, quite cheeky! Get your butt seen is its from-the-hip slogan. Really. And their ads are having lots of fun trotting out every euphemism for our, er, derrière that they can think of (notice I’ve already come up with two myself here).

That’s where I first heard it, on a radio ad. Something so in-yo-face is bound to get lots more attention from people of all ages than a bunch of scrolling text describing colorectal cancer symptoms and prevention advice.

Next, the Basso voce drug warnings

Then, on the other hand, there are the drug ads I’m treated to during my favourite soap…

You’ve probably seen several yourself. They’ve been on for years. But I saw one that was just so loaded down with caution messages that I wondered who would ever want to try the drug once they’d heard them all.

The producers at least used two different modes of communication: the spoken warnings and the text appearing at screen bottom. But so much else was wrong: the scrolled text was white on a background that also was often white, and it was in ALL CAPS, SHOUTING FONT.

And then the voiceover — speaking in what Australian plain language advocate Christopher Balmford calls ‘work voice’: that basso voce list of side effects, with its series of short pauses where the commas should be. Imagine the bullet-point list if they laid it out!

I know I’m watching a soap, but I don’t need to come away feeling like my intelligence has been insulted. And what was more ironic? The drug was for people with depression. Having suffered myself, I can tell you that I would not be too motivated to take a drug where just listening to the commercial wore me out.

Girl Welcomed To Womanhood With 4-Page Pamphlet

The Onion’s witing style is more for comedic purposes, the scenario in this story is still not all that far from reality in some education and healthcare settings.

Fortunately, many more good communicators and health practitioners are finding plainer – and more balanced – ways to educate people about what’s going on in their bodies, and in their world.

Visit the SimplyRead Links page to learn about a few of them. We plan to keep adding more links, so please check back again soon!

So much personquestionhas been said about the H1N1 virus and Canada’s experience with rolling out the vaccinations over the past couple weeks.

Much of the information out there has used clear, accessible words to express itself (bravo!); but the frequency with which the information is changing makes it challenging to stay on top of what’s true – and to avoid superstition about how credible it all is.

So, in the interest of making decisions based on clear, lucidly expressed information, I’ll share two pieces that I feel do the best job of ‘cutting the churn’ around this topic:

1. The Globe and Mail, Published on their Web version October 23, 2009: Our experts answered your swine flu questions, an account of the online Q&A session with Dr. Michael Gardam, director of infectious diseases prevention and control at the Ontario Agency for Health Protection and Promotion.

2. Some H1N1 Math, the October 30 edition of health info and promotion specialist Robyn Kalda’s blog, More Coffee Please.

When two healthy children die in one week, it’s easy to fall victim to wild stretches in logic in the face of an illness that seems so random in who it hits. But let’s all try to stay calm and make sound decisions, based on a critical assessment of the information we’re met with.

Post Pregnancy Pouch? Loose skin after childbirth? We can turn your flab into fab in one procedure. Click here to get started.

Such was the message that greeted me this morning, as I booted up and hopped onto Facebook for my morning ‘visit’ with online friends. Within minutes I had posted a warning in my Status, alerting folks to the possibility that they’ll also see this bunk, and imploring everyone not to be lured by the messaging.

It is interesting to me that most of the ads directed toward my Facebook profile page are for anti-aging products, real-estate…and now, plastic surgeries. Must be because I recently began displaying my birth year. Insidious!

Revisiting old, ugly baggage…and I don’t mean my boobs, ass or stomach

This is not the first time I have been hopping mad about this kind of messaging directed at those expecting, or having recently had, their children. My ire was similarly directed at Dr. Gerard M. DiLeo, respected OB-GYN and author of The Anxious Parent’s Guide to Pregnancy.

Now that I’ve got this blog, I’m using it to out this purveyor of women-unfriendly messaging wearing the cloak of well-meaning health advice.

I got this book in the early part of my first pregnancy. At 35 and being a natural sponge for facts, this was one of the first books that drew me in. After a quick skim of the Table of Contents and initial pages, I figured it was worth my $24.95, since it claimed to offer a more down-to-earth view of some of the overly-hyped advice and ‘warnings’ which often guilt, shame and terrify expectant mothers. So far, so good.

The reviews on the Amazon link above are positive, praising DiLeo’s ‘tell-it-like-it-is approach’. And I too was cool with it for the most part. I was even heartened by the message in the chapter on miscarriage, which showed a very gentle and supportive view toward women who’ve had one with the aim of helping them stop beating themselves up over something that usually happened for reasons far beyond the woman’s control.

A site called Crescent Blue’s Book Reviews , also praises the author’s more forgiving stance toward moms-to-be who do not follow every bit of health advice to the letter. However, they also pick out some of the book’s off-the-cuff condescension:

Book: gerard m dileo, the anxious parents guide to pregnancyThat said, I think the good doctor sometimes veers from light-hearted to flippant and risks offending some readers. “Pregnancy Rules for Husbands” boxes offer pithy remarks about dealing with one’s pregnant wife. But the pregnant women who make up the bulk of his audience may not find them amusing. “Rule #2: No garment — no shorts, no skirts, no slacks — ever, ever, in any way makes a woman’s behind look big. Ever.” Ha ha, right?

Indeed, his flippancy extends – surprise! – to the discussion of the woman’s (and possibly, her spouse’s) dissatisfaction with her post-partum body. And here’s where my blood started to boil…

He talks about how the post-partum and possibly also nursing woman will eventually classify her southward-drifting parts as ‘not a good look,’ and talks about how this negative self-evaluation might also extend to her feelings about being intimate again with her partner since, after all, the baby might have made her less, er, flexible in that regard as well.

OK, I was sort of with him. Having been a black-belt karate student before becoming pregnant, of course it had occurred to me that I might not return to my prior fighting form.

Snip, snip, and yer done!

And then, his tone brightening profusely, Dr. DiLeo goes on to say that fortunately, minimally-invasive surgical procedures are now quite widely available — some on an outpatient basis! — that could take care of these minor annoyances and restore the woman back to a closer version of her former glory.

That was it for me. What kind of message are he — and the above advertisers — trying to send to mothers (not to mention, their spouses)? How patronizing to assume that every woman wants to change what the creator has given her as the result of having given life. And how equally condescending to promote plastic surgery as simple, panaceic way to erase the evidence of that experience for the benefit of her partner?

I would have marched back in there and gotten my money back, had I not already defaced the offending pages and cover. I didn’t even donate the book, which my waste-aversive nature would usually dictate – it went straight into the Blue Box to be turned into so much mulch. Far be it from me to let another woman fall into this trap of backward thinking.

Quality health information is supportive and doesn’t make assumptions

Having written plain-language health info for more than a decade now, I’ve had more than my share of clients tell me that, in some of my attempts to connect with readers, I had also made some assumptions about what they were thinking that would make them feel talked-down-to.

For example, I learned a valuable lesson once when writing for teen girls about a condition called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). My piece began with something like

“Being a teenager is hard enough, what with all the changes in your body and your emotions running so high all the time. If you’re coping with PCOS, you may feel it’s even more of a challenge.”

Can you think of why this might have rubbed my client the wrong way?

With some distance from it, I was able to see that no teenager wants to be told by an old fart like their doctor that they, too, know just how tough it must be for them. And how do I know that bodily changes or raging hormones are the reasons this reader is feeling challenged (assuming they do in the first place)?

And I’d say the same to the Dr. DiLeos and Facebook surgery shills out there: why do you continue to pursue the tired argument that every woman whose body changes will be thrilled at the prospect of going under the knife to get their perkier, younger self back?

Why not instead offer them the alternative option of accepting these changes as just more bas-relief in the unique roadmap that has been their life’s journey so far? To my mind, this is the kind of acceptance that would make women feel like less-anxious parents-to-be.

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