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Improve Communication with Plain Language

Plain Language, sometimes referred to as or Plain English, was a movement initiated by governments in the 1970s and given a boost during the Obama administration with the Plain Writing Act in 2010.  It was promoted in educational professional development sessions and conferences as a means of making staff communications more efficient. Essentially, Plain Language promotes communication that your audience understands the first time they read or hear it.  Its importance is heightened during the COVID-19 crisis as we are physically separated from each other and communicate through technologies.  Although technology enables us to communicate asynchronously, it does not replace the nuances and of face-to-face communication.

There are impediments to clear communication through asynchronous communication such as email, electronic messaging, social media, discussion forums and electronic bulletin boards.   These include mechanical auto-correction, abundant verbosity, redundancy, unintended elision, divergence from a topic and institutional or technical jargon.

Communication options

There are a few alternatives to achieve clear and concise communication during the pandemic. 

  1. Meet face-to-face following the COVID-19 protocols. This is not practical as protocols are fluid, and it is expensive to prepare a meeting venue for people to conference.
  2. Communicate using synchronous technologies such as video conferencing or virtual classroom tools. This is a viable option with several caveats.   It is difficult to replace the casual conversations that were common in the face-to-face office space. Technology, through human or network issues, presents obstacles during sessions.  If you are reading this, you know these issues and are aware that they are becoming less frequent as people are becoming more adept at online synchronous communication and have been enhancing their technologies to ensure better sessions.  
  3. Use synchronous texting tools. These tools are essential for immediate communication, however their limitations, such as number of characters, autocorrection, misplaced finger taps. Informal casual communication norms often cause miscommunication.
  4. Adopt basic Plain Language principles when communicating asynchronously.   The majority of remote communication is asynchronous. If we implement Plain Language principles, miscommunication and clarification correspondences will be reduced.

The reality is, we cannot meet face-to-face consistently, and synchronous online meetings often are not recorded – who has time to return and listen to archived sessions? Online meetings are sometimes rushed or become social gathering as people are starved for social interaction. Text messaging is limited and is awkward to archive and index for future reference. The most reliable communication option is email.  It is asynchronous, however it indexes, organizes, archives and sorts, without reasonable limitations on text and attachment size.  In order to improve our email communication, we should implementing Plain Language principles. A few basic suggestions to comply with these are listed below.

Basic Plain Language Considerations (Principles)

Basic Plain Language Considerations (Principles)

The focus of these Plain Language considerations is communicating through email more effectively. If these suggested practices are applied to electronic communication, time, energy and even money can be saved.

Write for your audience
Ask yourself, who am I writing to? Considerations should include their educational background, native language, subject familiarity, technical knowledge, interest in the subject and their relevance to the topic.  Try not to tell the receiver what you know about the topic. In considering their previous knowledge, it will prevent you from stating the obvious or repeating identified facts, concepts or scenarios.

Short paragraphs
If you limit each paragraph to one idea, your paragraphs will be short and more understandable.  Short paragraphs can be used as an action list by the receiver if required.

Short sentences
Keep you sentences short to reduce effort at the receiving end of your communication. Review your emails to remove unnecessary words.

Simple terms
In workplace communications we are used to institutional and professional jargon, acronyms, cultural references, technical terms in our communications.   Use common words when possible to improve the clarity of your emails.  If it is essential to use technical terms, define them on the first reference of the communication. 

Active voice
Write sentences in active voice, with the subject at the start of sentences, to identify the performer of the action.  This may make your communications irregular, but your specific concepts will be clearly understood.  Try to keep the subject and verb close.  Reconsider adverbs and phrases that unduly separate the subject and verb.  

State points first

State key points first before going into details. This could occur in an opening paragraph or in the first sentence of subsequent paragraphs.

Stay on topic
Do your best not to add details or topics that are not directly related to your communication. These details can be added to forthcoming communications.  

Information formats
Use headings, lists, and tables to make reading easier as the information is spatially presented. Lists are useful for outlining steps in a process and breaking up a text into smaller chunks. Avoid nested lists.  Headings separate topics and allow the reader to skim and scan the communication. Lists provide itemized information. Use tables to make complex communications easier to understand.

It is very important to proofread your communications, and have an associate proof them as well to ensure that they will be easily understood by the intended audience.  Check for spelling mistakes, capitalization issues, subject verb agreement and punctuation problems.


Social isolation does not allow staff members to meet in person.  Who knows how long this situation will continue?  Plain Language practices used by educators and their administrators should improve your team’s communication throughout this socially distanced period.

Resource to Explore

Federal Plain Language guidelines, https://plainlanguage.gov/media/FederalPLGuidelines.pdf

Clear Writing, http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/nfporgs/07-049.htm

Plain Language Checklist, https://www.archives.gov/open/plain-writing/checklist.html

John Allan

John Allan

John is a Canadian who writes about learning object development and online facilitation from a teacher's perspective.

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