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MSPTC Student Review on Deborah Bosley's Plain Language Webinar / by Patricia Bochey

The following review was selected for publication from blogs submitted by students of the MSPTC program at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), who attended the event. NJIT's MSPTC program offers a completely online MS degree in Professional and Technical Communication, and two online Graduate Certificates -- Social Media Essentials or Technical Communication Essentials. These can be applied towards a full MS program.

The report cards are in… Plain Language gets high marks.

It’s time to drop the jargon.

The Plain Language report cards are in – and some federal agencies earned winning grades while others failed to make the cut. In 2010, President Obama signed the Plain Writing Act, requiring federal agencies to present "Clear Government communication that the public can understand and use." Like most important legislation, there is always a trickle-down effect. Now, businesses are using Plain Language in consumer documents and this is good news for everyone!

On March 14th I was excited by the opportunity to attend a virtual seminar hosted by the Society for Technical Communication (STC), New York Metro chapter. I was fortunate to be an invited student from the NJIT Professional Technical Communication program. I didn’t have a front row seat at the presentation in New York City and I quietly wished I was a part of the live STC community in that room. Instead, I logged in from home and listened to the buzz as the room settled in for a presentation on Plain Language.

The seminar featured guest speaker Dr. Deborah Bosley who led an energetic discussion titled:

“What is Plain Language? How does it work? And why should you care?”

Dr. Nancy Coppola, our instructor In Advanced Professional and Technical Communication, introduced the Plain Language topic in class. We discussed the significance of using plain language guidelines for writing concise content. I was anxious to hear from Dr. Bosley regarding the use of plain language in business writing.

Dr. Bosley opened her presentation with a quote “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw. Very aptly put and a great introduction to the importance of clear communication. Admittedly, she pointed out - it’s not as easy as you might think. 

During the presentation, she noted that poor communication has traditionally extended into documents that all of us use on a regular basis. Insurance policies, healthcare policies, credit agreements, mortgage documents and legal contracts are commonly associated with ambiguous language practices. Haven’t we all been asked to sign documents that we haven’t read thoroughly? This is the tip of the iceberg in the trickle-down effect of poor communication. It’s a problem for businesses and consumers alike! What surprised me most though, was the range of disciplines affected by legal documents that use obscure and ambiguous language.

Consider these facts… Companies spend millions of dollars each year to reinforce understanding of technical documents. Help desks employ representatives whose job is solely to answer consumer questions. Why? Because poorly written technical documentation leads to consumers failure to understand ambiguous contract language. This, in turn, leads to an increase in secondary costs of doing business. Costs associated with forms that fail to explain steps and wording that exposes liability are costing businesses billions of dollars every year. Consequently, businesses face a decline in brand loyalty and consumer confidence. Clearly from a business perspective, adopting plain language guidelines in technical documents makes plain sense. It is time to drop the jargon and adopt plain language practice across the board.

The goal of using of Plain Language in financial statements, credit card policies, insurance contracts and mortgage agreements (to name a few) is to avoid misunderstanding, improve clarity and increase effectiveness of communication. It is important to remember that using plain language should not change the meaning of complex documents, but to create documents that are easy for consumers to understand and use. I didn’t realize before attending the presentation that consumers will decide in the first eight seconds of reading a contract if they understand it. This is where I began to understand the benefits of using plain language.

To further drive home the benefits of using plain language, Dr. Bosley presented the results of a plain language study that compared how well Government agencies are doing at implementing and using clear writing practices in their forms and procedures. Take a look at the Plain Language Report Card. I am certainly interested in seeing the trickle-down effect that these grades have on usability in general.

Overall, Dr. Bosley did a great job explaining the importance of using Plain Language, what it is and why we should care.

My grades are posted:

[A+) Plain language helps businesses reduce costs associated with consumer complaints
[A+] Plain language meets the consumer need for usability and ease of understanding.
[A+] Plain language reduces costly litigation caused by miscommunicating policies.
[A+] Clear communication and effective documentation increase consumer loyalty.

I enjoyed attending this STC seminar with my class and learning more about this important (and often debated) subject. My thoughts from this seminar are that Plain Language benefits all of us and it is here to stay.