The secret to good communication, plain and simple

GSA's Katherine Spivey makes a strong case for improving how agencies communicate with the public.

Use short, simple words. Write short sentences. Avoid jargon.

Those are some of the writing tips taught by Katherine Spivey, plain language launcher at the General Services Administration, as she helps GSA and other agencies comply with the Plain Writing Act of 2010.

The law, which took effect in October 2011, applies to all public communications by federal agencies, except regulations. The goal is to make government communications more readily understandable by the general public, thereby saving everyone time, effort and a great deal of confusion. In other words, it’s about customer service.

Indeed, when asked where she got her unusual title, Spivey said, “GSA already had a ‘user experience evangelist.’”

But writing plainly is often easier in theory than in practice. It takes training to learn how to do it and feedback from others to determine if the effort has been successful, Spivey said.

A recent analysis by VisibleThread evaluated 30 federal agencies’ websites based on readability; use of active, rather than passive, sentence structures; avoidance of long sentences; and sparing use of complex words. Some agencies are getting it right. The Bureau of Labor Statistics scored the highest, followed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, at the other end of the scale were the websites for the Federal Railroad Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

The Plain Writing Act is a multiyear project, and in 2012, the emphasis is on training, especially for the people agencies have named to be the coordinators for their plain-writing efforts. Classes, advice and a wealth of resources are available at PlainLanguage.gov.

Spivey, who was previously a management analyst at GSA and a Web content editor at the Homeland Security Department, spoke recently with staff writer Alice Lipowicz about the challenges of writing plainly and why she admires Henry James’ writing but doesn’t use it as a model for e-mail messages.

FCW: Tell us more about the act and GSA’s approach to plain writing.

Spivey: It is fair to say that GSA recognizes this as a very important initiative, along with customer service. They are both about adopting private-sector practices.

Plain language is a big culture change. In order to reach our customers, we have to model plain language.

The effort is results-focused, and it varies by agency. It is focused on the Web and on new documents [created] after Oct. 13, 2011. It is for all public-facing documents — electronic and print. It does not cover regulations.

Plain writing is only for new material. We are not going back in time.

FCW: Can you give us an example of plain writing?

Spivey: Here is a short example. An agency official might write: “It is beneficial to familiarize yourself with.…” A plain version would be “You should know….”

People scan. They don’t read word for word. So use everyday words. How many people say “vehicle”? Most people say “car,” “truck” or “SUV.”

How many people say, “Do you concur?” Most would say, “Do you agree?”

We have usability testing on the first Friday of the month. We are looking at usability of federal websites for the most popular tasks. What we have found is that no matter what the site is, it usually has too much text, too much jargon and too many acronyms. We advise people to cut the number of words by 50 percent.

FCW: How do you determine whether text meets the plain-language guidelines?

Spivey: There are guidelines and techniques: active voice, short sentences, etc.

What we have been working on is “How do we check it?” If you have a problem with determining if writing is plain, we are willing to try to figure it out.

We are a debuting a feedback tool. It is a survey giving an example of writing and then asking, “Is this clear?” For the example we used, 75 percent said, “Yes, it is clear.” Twenty-five percent said no. The survey is an excellent way to help us with confusing areas.

We are happy with that rate, but we also look carefully at the comments. Generally, there are real comprehension issues. Occasionally, there are issues of using a word wrong or of grammar.

Plain writing is not about the grammar or about good writing. It is about effective communication. We are not interested in assessing whether a sample of writing has good grammar. You can have grammatical sentences that are not plain.

I have been reading Henry James lately. He writes wonderful sentences, but they are not plain.

FCW: Could plain-writing reviews be automated?

Spivey: There are reports of software that does the analysis. But we are not going to use software. We are sincere about asking for customer feedback. We are looking at all kinds of feedback on how to check documents.

FCW: What about a certification process?

Spivey: We did not want to add a certification for plain language; that would be too onerous. What if a document was certified and people still didn’t understand it?

FCW: What is your biggest challenge in teaching people to communicate more clearly?

Spivey: The greatest hurdle at federal agencies is that people think their words need to be fancy to show they are smart and using good judgment.

It is a big culture change to orient your writing to the customer and to commercial best practices. These days, people expect [to be able to use a] website without having to ask for help. If I’m going to pay a bill online, I don’t expect to have to talk with anyone. The same applies for customers accessing government services on the Web — such as checking your tax refund, applying for benefits, getting information.

Some people do plain writing easily, but for some it is hard.

FCW: How did you end up as an advocate for plain writing?

Spivey: A number of my previous jobs have led me to this — writer, editor, working with a magazine association, and a teaching and training background really helped.

I consider myself mostly an editor and an extra pair of eyes. When I was growing up, my dad used to bring home documents, and we would diagram sentences. I thought it was fun; I thought I was helping Dad.

In my private life, I prefer complicated sentences. I want to savor the story. But not at work. I don’t do Jamesian e-mails. People would never get anything done.

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