Does your government agency receive calls and emails from people that can’t navigate your website? This is a sign that your content is not written in plain language, and that the public isn’t able to find or understand the information on your website.
The Plain Writing Act along with a new Executive Order requires federal agencies to use “clear government communication that the public can understand and use.”
At Anthro-Tech, we use the guidance from plainlanguage.gov combined with a Human-Centered Design (HCD) approach to help our clients achieve their plain language goals. Our team focuses on the three pillars of plain language:
- Easy for people to find what they need
- Easy to understand
- Tells people what to do
Why use plain language?
Writing in plain language saves people time, reduces administrative costs, and makes life easier. The benefits for government agencies include:
- Better informed citizens
- Builds trust and transparency with the public
- Saves taxpayer money by reducing administrative burdens and redundancies
- Government services and products become more effective and efficient
The Three Pillars of Plain Language: A Guide for Government Agencies
#1 Write content that makes it easy for people to find what they need
Write your content in a way that is purposeful and designed for the user.
Organize the information
- Start with a topic sentence that states your purpose
- Put important information first
Design for reading
- Create content with useful headings
- Use lists and tables to simplify complex material
- Use visuals when applicable
Let's look at an example:
We must receive your payment electronically on or before the 10th day of the following month. If you do not submit your payment electronically, we must receive your payment on or before the 20th day of the following the month.
For example, if you pay online for the month of April, we must receive your payment by May 20th.
Rather than burying important due dates in a long paragraph, the “Plain Talk” version uses a visual table with the two payment options in the left column, and their respective due dates in the right column. It also uses simplified terms such as “online” and “check” which are more commonly used terms than “electronically.” There is also an example using names of months, rather than something that could be easily misunderstood, like “the following.” This makes it easy for readers to navigate to the information that’s important to them.
#2 Write content that is easy to understand
Save your users’ time and frustration by clearly communicating information. When writing in plain language, fewer users will need to contact your agency for clarification.
Write for your audience
- Understand who your audience is by conducting research such as interviews or surveys
- Use language your audience will comprehend/understand/feel comfortable with
- Use short sections, short paragraphs, and short sentences
- Follow the subject-verb-object writing style
Choose Your Words Carefully
Let's look at an example:
The City of Anytown, USA takes a view of sustainability which incorporates green programs into a broader triple bottom line approach that simultaneously promotes social equity, economic vitality, and environmental quality.
The City of Anytown, USA supports programs, education, and policies that promote social fairness a healthy environment, and a thriving economy.
Rather than writing a long-winded sentence using a lot of “fluff” phrases such as “broader triple bottom line approach” and “simultaneously,” the “Plain Talk” example is much clearer by using the subject-verb-object writing style. This style gets right to the point versus your user having to re-read a run-on sentence numerous times to try to comprehend what you’re trying to say.
#3 Write content that tells people what to do
People come to your website to accomplish a task or get an answer to a question. Your content needs to guide them through the process of accomplishing those goals.
Keep it conversational
- Use active voice rather than passive voice
- Use examples
- Use “must” to express requirements; avoids the ambiguous word “shall”
- Use “you” and other pronouns to speak to the reader
Let's look at an example:
“The application shall be submitted to the agency by the applicant on or before the first of July.”
“We must receive your application by July 1st.”
Rather than referring to the audience as “the applicant,” and the organization as “the agency,” the after example uses “you” and “we,” respectively. This helps users quickly understand who, exactly, this piece of writing is talking about. Additionally, using active voice rather than passive voice places important information in a logical order, which makes it easier for audiences to understand what they need to do the first time they read the sentence.
Government agencies not only have a legal obligation to deliver content citizens can understand, but a moral one, as well. Writing in plain language so that people can find what they need, understand what they find, and use it to fit their needs will build trust between the people and your government agency.