Ditch the jargon: Why organisations need to simplify their language

26 Apr 2018

Less of the word soup, writes Fergal McGovern. Image: Margaret M Stewart

VisibleThread CEO Fergal McGovern discusses the importance of clear communication for government and business organisations alike.

Too often, you see language on a government website that is confusing and full of jargon, or a letter from a government department that contains long, complex sentences. Governments generally do not speak to citizens or businesses in a human, accessible way.

Fuzzy language causes issues

Future Human

Here’s an example of a letter we got recently from the Department of Social Protection: “If it is considered at a later point that an alternative or supporting product is required, the department will tender accordingly so that all providers of same will be afforded the opportunity to compete for such a contract in accordance with public procurement procedures.”

This scores at readability grade level of 23. Who speaks like this?

You need 23 years of education to easily digest this. This statement is inaccessible to 92pc of the Irish population (those without a PhD) and is full of complex language.

Here’s a simplified rewrite of what they’re trying to say: “If we need a different solution in the future, we will issue a new tender. This will make it fair for all providers.”

Here’s how these compare:

  • Before: 44 words, one very long sentence and a readability grade of 23
  • After: 23 words, two simple sentences and a readability grade of 5.6

Why do government agencies persist in using this kind of ‘gov-speak’? It’s a mix of habit, culture and inertia. Fortunately, departments such as Irish Revenue do care and want to change. In fact, Revenue is leading the charge for transparent communications in Ireland.

Behind every visit to a website is someone looking for information on a topic, or looking to complete a task.

Here are just some of the consequences of using obtuse ‘gov-speak’ language:

  • It prevents citizens from accessing vital services that they’re entitled to
  • It can delay or prevent businesses from being compliant
  • It drives traffic to government call centres, and that in turn drives up cost to government
  • It damages trust in government institutions, and alienates citizens

Governments also hurt themselves by failing to use plain language, as there is a wider threat to our democratic systems. This wider conversation centres around transparency in government, and trust in our institutions.

Support for quality improvement programmes in organisations

Customers can extract and get instant quality insights from large-scale documentation and websites. VisibleThread analyses thousands of documents and entire websites for poor language quality in seconds.

This means senior executives can see quality improvement through content key performance indicators (KPIs) and dashboards. Government agencies have limited resources for website improvement projects; VisibleThread does all the heavy lifting for them.

Support for content creators across the organisation

Governments have multiple departments and it’s a real challenge to ensure consistency across them. Too often, agencies send staff on intensive ‘clear writing’ courses, only to find that people revert to bad habits.

To have an effective plain-language programme, you must be able to measure content quality with objective KPIs. Using our solutions, governments can ensure that their communication teams are working to the same standards.

Users self-serve by scoring their own content in VT Readability. It suggests edits to improve the simplicity of the communication. Plain-language adoption becomes meaningful across the organisation, without the need for additional training for staff.

In this country, Irish Revenue and the Irish Central Bank have both deployed VisibleThread technology to help. VisibleThread helps government agencies globally. The Australian government is standardising on our solutions across six major government departments, including the department of industry, innovation and science. We’re also working with many Canadian and US agencies.

The common challenge for all these agencies is how to measure improvement for their plain-language programmes. Most agencies want to improve but without objective scoring and KPIs, it’s impossible to measure that positive change.

So, our customers are applying technology to give them the quality insights they need for quality improvement programmes. They do this by scoring published content, both internal and external. They use VisibleThread for auditing content as well as supporting the publication cycle.

Our technology improves citizen engagement by speaking to people as humans.

One of the simplest ways governments can earn, and keep, the trust of their citizens is to use plain language. Slowly, this realisation is dawning. In the US, former president Obama signed the Plain Writing Act in 2010, and the soon-to-be implemented General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes no fewer than seven references to plain language.

Secondly, governments add an extra operational burden to their own civil servants and departments when they don’t use plain language. People who can’t find the information they need on a website will ring a call centre or try another way to get their answer.

There are many other industries that could benefit, and VisibleThread is working not just in government, but also in sectors as diverse as insurance, pharma, defence and aerospace.

Think about the insurance industry: do people actually read terms and conditions on insurance policies? They tend to be full of legalese and alienate the reader. It’s only when you have a claim that people will try to understand them. And, when the fine print turns out to be disadvantageous to the claimant, it destroys brand trust.

It’s not just insurance – nearly every industry gets sidetracked by jargon or speaks to people using complex language.

Plain language is the key to happy citizens and happy customers.

By Fergal McGovern

Fergal McGovern is CEO of VisibleThread, a company that provides a solution to analyse and optimise thousands of documents and webpages quickly and accurately.