The Public Speaks: Make it plain

Christopher Trudeau’s latest research, The Public Speaks, Again: An International Study of Legal Communication shows us that using plain language is what people want and what workplaces need to be more productive.

The study shows that the more educated you are the more you prefer plain language:

  • 79% of undergrad degree holders
  • 82% of master’s degree holders
  • 86% of law degree holders

all prefer plain language.

We asked Gael Spivak, current president of Editors Canada, to tell us more.

This is the second-stage study, isn’t it? What came before?

Yes, it’s a follow-up study on an article that Trudeau published in 2012. In this paper, he worked with Christine Cawthorne. According to the notes on the paper, Cawthorne “inspired Professor Trudeau to conduct this international study, and she contributed extensively to all phases of it.”

The first study had respondents from just the United States. This new study expanded to include responses from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

What do you consider the main lessons from this study?

Because I read so much in this area, most of the findings didn’t surprise me. Those include the following:

  • People want an explanation of technical terms, even if that makes the text longer.
  • Readers generally don’t like legalistic terms and jargon.
  • Readers are not impressed by complicated terms or Latin words.
  • More-educated readers prefer plain language versions of documents.

However, many more people use legal information at work than I expected. In all sectors—not just law and government.

This makes it really important for the text to be written clearly, for all the people who need to read it and use it.

From the paper:

“…there are a lot of people who frequently use legal information at work that was not initially written for them. This underscores the importance of writing clearly for all readers—you do not always know who will need to understand what you wrote, so it is best to make it clear for everyone.”

And I was surprised by how much time is wasted when those people don’t understand the text. The majority of respondents reported that they wasted time trying to figure out the meaning.

What will be the impact of this?

The information on wasted time in particular is a good tool to show how much bad writing costs companies and governments. They can look at the data and figure out how much money they are wasting by not writing clearly. To me, that’s an incentive to change how they deal with this.

How will these results affect how you do your job as a writer and editor for the Government of Canada?

As I mentioned previously, most of the findings weren’t new to me. It’s good to see them reaffirmed across several countries, though.

And the findings give me additional data, which I can use in my work. Because I work with scientists in government, they like to see actual data. And a study that includes Canada gives it more weight.

I was especially pleased to see that zero percent of Canadian participants in the study were impressed with Latin words or complicated terms. That’s really something, to see zero percent. That will have a pretty strong impact when I get to say that in my plain language presentation that I give at work.

Gael Spivak works as a senior writer and editor at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. She is also the current president of the Editors’ Association of Canada.