For some organisations, re-writing communications in plain English may seem like eating Brussels sprouts. We know on one level it’s a good thing to do, but is it really worth the effort?
Translating communications into plain English for public consumption has been an accepted practice in the government and private sectors for decades. Many organisations also often invest in professional editors and graphic designers to help them prepare stunning annual reports to enhance their organisational image.
But what about internal communications like policies and procedures? When it comes to getting the job done right, plain language is critical. Yet many of these documents are still written in complex and bureaucratic language typical of the 1980s.
To find out whether it’s worth having your policies and procedures simplified into plain English, here are three simple steps you can take.
Step 1. Find out how often your team members refer to current policies and procedures
Observe team members in action, particularly those new to the job. Do they seek a written document or videoed instructions to follow? Do they automatically ask another team member for help? Or do they dive straight in and do the task their own way without consideration to company policy or procedure?
Alternatively, you can simply ask your team members how often they refer to the policies or procedures. Be prepared for the response, ‘I didn’t know we had a procedure’ or ‘I just ask someone.’
If a common response is to ask a team member, instruct team members to keep a log of how much time they spend answering queries that could be covered in a procedure document or video.
Step 2. Test two versions of the same procedure
A simple and effective activity to test how well the procedure works is to create two procedures for the same task and road test them. One procedure will be the existing procedure, the other will be a plain English version of the same procedure, preferably prepared by an expert plain English writer.
Divide activity participants into two groups with two to three participants in each group. Group A will use the plain English procedure while Group B will use the existing procedure.
For this experiment, ideally co-opt new participants from another team, as existing team members will have experience they can draw on and are likely to be familiar with the format of the existing procedures.
Step 3. Measure outcomes
Although effectiveness of a written communication can be difficult to measure, there are a couple of quick and simple tests you can do.
1. Test how long it takes for Group A and Group B to read their procedure.
Before the two groups attempt to apply the procedure, ask them to read and understand the procedure. Each group must begin reading at the same time. Participants are not allowed to discuss the procedure with each other or ask questions. Use a stop watch to time how long it takes for each group to read and understand their procedure.
Typically, we find that the plain English group reads the procedure in at least half the time of the non-plain English group. They also gain a greater understanding of what is required.
This immediate time saving will allow team members more time to complete other tasks, thereby increasing their overall efficiency.
2. Test participants’ understanding of the procedure
Instruct participants to carry out the procedure and time themselves. Once each participant has completed all the steps in the procedure, review each participant’s work. How many errors did each group make? Did participants within the same group make the same errors? Did Group A and Group B make the same or similar errors or were the errors different? Which group took longer to complete the procedure?
Discuss the errors with team members to try and establish why the errors occurred. A common issue is that the user misunderstood the instruction because it wasn’t clear, or a critical step was missing in the procedure document which caused the user to make an incorrect assumption.
Although your internal communications may not generally be visible to the public in the same way brochures and website copy is, there are many positive flow-on effects from adopting a plain English approach to internal communications. These include ensuring your compliance obligations are clearly documented, enhanced reputation through more efficient work practices and greater rigorousness and transparency of your internal processes.