Plain Language

Communicating using Plain Language

An important part of the licensing process involves communicating with communities that may be affected by your research. Communicating effectively with communities is an on-going process that involves many steps, such as developing your research project idea, submitting your research application, meeting with communities to hear their feedback and input, and presenting your findings when your research is complete. These communications must be meaningful for your audience.

Many organizations in the NWT that review research licence applications, and reports, do not have people with technical or scientific knowledge on staff. Also, these organizations review applications and reports from a variety of scientific fields. Since the technical language differs from one field to the next, the most efficient way to communicate is using plain language.

It takes time for a community organization to consider research applications given the volume that they receive, and when applications are full of scientific jargon they are not easy to understand and can take more time to review. Community reviewers are often required to summarize your research agenda for their members, and there is a risk of losing important information if it is not presented in a way that is meaningful for them. Communications that are unclear may undermine a community’s confidence in you, and may even lead to mistrust. This does not help when you are working to develop a positive working relationship.

Communicating effectively is equally important for community presentations. There is nothing more frustrating for an audience than not being able to understand what is being said.  It is also discouraging for the presenter to realize that an audience got lost during their presentation.

Some basic tips for ensuring your language is appropriate are:

  • Use a tone that suits your audience: avoid unnecessary formality.
  • Use an active rather than passive voice.
  • Be direct; eliminate ambiguities.
  • Only use essential text.
  • Use titles and subtitles that are informative.
  • Explain only one idea in each sentence.
  • Make the links between ideas obvious.
  • Keep sentences short ~ 25 words on average.
  • Keep the subject and verb close together at the beginning of the sentence.
  • Simplify your language.
    • Use common words.
    • Use technical words with care: define or provide descriptive examples.
    • Cut out jargon.
    • Don't use acronyms

(taken from Cheryl Stephens’ Introduction to Plain Language)

Understanding Your Audience

Plain language means designing communications to meet the needs of your audience. Keep in mind that you may need to communicate with more than one audience.

As you start planning your communications, consider the following questions:   

  • Who will be reading this (or attending my presentation)?
  • What information do they need/want?
  • Will they be able to share the information with other members of their community?
  • What is their background knowledge or familiarity with your topic?
  • What is their first language?  Education level?  Reading ability?
  • Are they more fluent in their Aboriginal language than in English?
  • What is their previous experience with researchers?

Before You Submit That...

Before finalizing your communications, you should review them to ensure that they have met the mark.

The NWT Literacy Council and the Government of the Northwest Territories have developed a Plain Language Audit Tool to help you review your work. This tool can be used to review your communications, and ensure that it meets plain language requirements (that is, they are clear, well-organized, and will be relevant to your audience).

Also, be sure to contact the licensing office to ensure your applications, and research summaries conform to their criteria for format and plain language.

Resources for Plain Language

There are a tremendous number of resources available to help you communicate more effectively with your community reviewers. The following websites should provide you with everything you need to develop your plain language communications:

Write for your Reader: A Plain Language Handbook

A useful handbook developed by the NWT Literacy Council with support from  the Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment.

Plain Language Examples

A US Federal Government website featuring examples of plain language writing, including samples of documents before and after they received plain language treatments.

The Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN)

PLAIN is a volunteer non-profit organization of plain language advocates, professionals, and organizations committed to plain language. Their website includes numerous resources and samples.