Clear communication and official documents
The same situation occurs when we have to sign for a mortgage, read the information leaflet for medicines or deal with government bodies. We can’t understand anything! This is why, back in 2010, Barack Obama introduced the Plain Writing Act, a law that requires plain language in federal documents. That is, “writing that is clear, concise, well-organized, and appropriate to the intended audience”, avoiding “jargon, redundancy, ambiguity and opacity”.
As such, one of the main objectives of clear communication is to guarantee people’s right to understand. The official US Government website itself is an example of how a public institution should organise its content in a way in which citizens won’t get lost in a sea of information.
Transparency and clarity are also the driving force behind the websites of the Canadian and UK governments. Both administrations, like the US, have style guides that address aspects of both writing and the design and usability of pages on their websites and mobile sites.
Publications by the European Commission also adhere to the guide ‘How to write clearly’. It gives advice on clear language and linguistic solutions to avoid making Commission documents (legislative acts, technical reports, minutes of meetings, press releases or speeches) difficult to understand.
In Spain, Madrid City Council has spearheaded the redrafting of its official documents. The municipal staff receive training through workshops, and they also hold an annual day devoted to clear communication, with the help of the Foundation of Emerging Spanish and the Prodigioso Volcán communications agency. The first case study developed was a new model for traffic fines. These notices have now been improved in terms of the language used, which is now clearer and easier to understand, and the design, which makes them easier to read.
Inclusive communication and corporate documents
The same agency was behind ING Bank’s decision to eliminate the fine print on financial products. The legal texts for one of its mortgage products are now comprehensible for users on its website. In particular, they have taken special care to improve the wording, organise the different elements, facilitate legibility and use visual resources to provide information with transparency and confidence.
Plain language, as we can see, is not just a tool to facilitate dialogue between public authorities and citizens, but also between companies and potential customers via different channels (paper, mobile phones, computers, etc.). It also applies to countless types of documents, from contracts to invoices, catalogues, forms, leaflets, consent forms, technical reports, labels and instruction manuals, for example.
In terms of the latter, the undisputed leader when it comes to clear communication is Ikea. All of the Swedish companies products on their website contain a section where assembly instructions can be downloaded. Not a single word is used – only simple illustrations of each tool and each step. The manual is therefore completely inclusive, as it is easily accessible to speakers of any language, level or ability.
n the same vein, the Zappos children’s shoe sizing chart offers all the necessary information on a single page, anticipating questions that the consumer may ask, such as “What if my measurements are two different sizes?”. And it does so with a good sense of humour, acknowledging how difficult it can be to get children’s shoe sizes right: “All right, let’s hope this process is relatively painless”.
Non-disclosure agreements are often a cumbersome piece of text that is difficult for even the parties involved to understand. This is where visual agreements come in. Visual Contract, a specialist in the area that straddles design and legal drafting, has created an easy-to-use confidentiality agreement for AIRBUS’ innovative project collaboration with new companies. It is short, simple and includes explanations of legal terms for non-experts.
Clear communication: a win-win situation
From looking at these examples, we can see that clear and transparent communication begins with a study of the target audience, which may not be a specialised one. For this same reason, it is essential to organise the message and use language that is easily understood by everyone, including people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities. Typography and other design elements can also help, such as headings, subheadings, colour or white space. Images (icons, graphics, photos), and audio and video are also excellent tools for clear communication. All these elements are key to eliminating communication barriers for both companies and public authorities.