A Great Keynote Address on Plain Language at ABC Montreal

The 2011 International Convention of the Association for Business Communication (ABC) got underway officially this morning with a keynote address delivered by Dr. Annetta L. Cheek, Chair of the Center for Plain Language.

Dr. Cheek and the Center were instrumental in getting the US Congress to pass the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The new law requires that any federal document being used by the public to understand or use a federal benefit or service (e.g, student loans or VA benefits), file their taxes, or see how to conform to a federal regulation be written in plain language.

What is plain language?

According to the law, it’s “writing that is clear, concise, and well organized and that follows other best practices appropriate to the subject or field and the intended audience.”

You can tell if your document is written in plain language, Dr. Cheek says (drawing on earlier work by plain language expert Ginny Redish), if your intended audience . . .

  • Can find what they need,
  • Can understand it, and
  • Can use it—on the first reading.

While these criteria mean that your style will vary depending on who your readers are, easy-to-read documents tend to share these features:

  • A logical organization,
  • Informative headings,
  • Active verbs and other strong verbs,
  • Pronouns (“you” and “we”),
  • Lists and tables,
  • Common words, and
  • Well-organized, reasonably short sentences.

 Effective documents also tend to avoid . . .

  • Abbreviations, jargon, needless legal terms, Latin;
  • Confusing sentence constructions (e.g., dangling modifiers);
  • Noun strings (too many nouns in a row used as modifiers of a noun, as in “Daycare Center Assessment Findings”);
  • Unnecessary words; and
  • Information that the reader doesn’t need (such as self-congratulatory text about the agency)

At the official government website for the law (http://www.plainlanguage.gov/), you can read the law, find resources, and see “before” and “after” examples. The Center for Plain Language’s website (www.centerforplainlanguage.org)  offers additional advice and materials. And you and your students can actually do online plain-language training at the website for the National Institutes of Health (go to www.nih.gov/clearcommunication/plainlanguage.htm, scroll down to “Where Can I Learn More?,” and select the first link, “NIH Plain Language Training”).

What a great start to an interesting, educational, and fun conference for business communication professionals!

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