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The ever-relevant case for “plain language”

June 2, 2010

Recently I came upon an article that discussed the need for “plain language”. Neil James (2009) pointed to the obvious need for some degree of standardization of the language used in areas that the average person would like/need to understand such as politics, medicine, law and other types of every-day items. James (2009) pointed out what is lacking in the plain language realm is a professional framework to provide for a foundation under which users could easily find what they need, glean important information and put that information to use, depending upon their situation. Many professions, James pointed out, have a deeply entrenched manner of conveying information (think legalities, for instance) and value the ability to hone the technicalities of their written products, sometimes to the extent the final piece becomes esoteric and virtually impossible for a layperson to understand.

Academic writing is just as proprietary to the point of not being able to be understood by many. Scientific and technical communication, in the case of academic writing, lends itself easily to a disciplined, albeit dry delivery that intends to set forth an argument as to why something is of interest only to convey results in largely disinteresting-to-the-masses fashion. Similar to the case of legalities, there is unfortunately a good reason as to why this is so. As topics develop, the complexity of exploring the topic increases. As complexity increases so follows the language used to discuss said complexities. Before you know it, a person outside of [that particular] discipline would have to spend considerable amounts of time doing deep subject research to understand (in broad terms) what the author was even talking about. Such is the case for subject matter experts.

Despite this discouraging fact of some aspects of life, complex communication in some areas is necessary. However, there are those that feel overcomplicating their communication somehow presents it as being more credible because the words are complex. Take for example communication regarding one’s health care benefits. Over the span of my career, I have certified benefits claims, administered employee benefit programs and possess my SPHR and GPHR (which theoretically point to my having some degree of respectable knowledge in this area); but despite my knowledge and experience I am increasingly aghast at the complexity involved in understanding and playing by the “rules” of my own health care plans. It is no longer good enough to call the customer service department of the insurer to ask whether or not a particular item is covered or in what percentage a claim could be paid because the tendency toward getting conflicting or flat-out wrong information is present. Clearly such poor communication and intentionally overly complex smoke and mirrors are ethical issues which consumers of health care (and information in general) must face.

In my case I am fortunate to have the ability to ferret out answers and become a decent self-advocate, but what about those you aren’t so fortunate? The ethics problems related to health care – on all sides – dictate a very close look at how overly complicated communication regarding benefits programs widens the divide between the “haves” and “have nots”. Consider this: how would a 90 year old woman with a 4th grade education ever understand coordination of benefits between two or more providers; especially if she is bounced back and forth on the phone between providers with each claiming it was the other provider’s problem. What is the effect upon this person’s health during the whole inquiry process and how many people “die trying” in such cases? It would not be difficult to imagine advocates being flooded with requests from such consumers, knowing each person’s request is important and potentially life-impacting. It would not be difficult either to imagine that being such advocacy positions would be a draining and never-ending battle that could be made easier with a little disambiguation and ethical consideration on the parts of many within the chain of communication.

As life becomes increasingly complex with technological advances and ever-sprawling systems to manage it all, the case for “plain language” (and a little ethics please) is alive and well. One should not have to possess post-graduate education to understand whether or not they can fill a prescription.

Many consumer watchdog groups have taken on the medical insurance industry and their ethical communications problems but the landscape remains the same. Part of the problem appears to be rooted in our highly litigious society. Another part of the problem appears to be the inability for insurers to give policy holders clear and definitive answers to their questions. Aristotle might feel disgust at the whole mess, wondering whether his Golden Rule made any impact at all. Certainly there are businesses to run and bills to pay, but the human side of the equation has been discarded, seemingly without remorse.

Resources

James, N. (2009). Professionalizing plain language: A postcard on current developments. Intercom, April 2009, 9-11. Society for Technical Communication. Retrieved May 19, 2010 from http://www.stc.org/intercom/PDFs/2009/200904_09-11.pdf

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 2, 2010 2:51 pm

    Cori
    Two contributing factors:
    1. low reading comprehension rates among employees/customers -and-
    2. an overbundance of legal and technical jargon.

    DoD is asking for plain language proposal responses – they just don’t have the resources (schedule/cost/personnel) to muddle through complex documentation.

    As technology managers/technologists/systems thinkers, we can play the role of facilitator by clearly stating the problem and proposed solutions.

    Regardless of your take on the oil spill, BP’s Kent Wells has done a good job explaining the problem and steps they are taking to resolve.
    http://bp.concerts.com/gom/kentwells_update24052010.htm

  2. corizuppo permalink*
    June 2, 2010 4:23 pm

    Great observations. Jargon and slang have become part of the reason for the movement toward plain language and the solidification of plain language as a professional/organizational commitment.

    Wells’ presentation was a great example of effective technical communication. He presents calmly and clearly in plain-speak. Thank you for the link JD!

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