2017 was not a great year for good communication, says the Plain English Campaign. It bemoans a global drop in standards, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg calling a reliance on foodbanks “rather uplifting”, which won him its Foot in Mouth Award.
But looking at the campaign’s more desirable awards, there are positive signs that information aimed at some of society’s most vulnerable people is being communicated more simply and clearly. And as a result individuals are not only better informed, they are better protected and reassured.
Simple is not the same as superficial. Just because something is written in a straightforward way, this doesn’t mean it can’t address complex and sensitive issues. And it certainly should not be patronising.
For instance, the Children’s Commissioner for England produced child-friendly guides to Facebook terms and conditions to help young social media users understand their digital rights and what they’re signing up to.
These are challenging topics to write about. People seeking information on bereavement are likely to be a state of shock and loss, anxious, lonely and fearful. The content needs to hit the right note, recognising their feelings while providing practical advice.
One way Coping with bereavement deals with this is by including the contributions of real people, using direct quotes on their personal experiences. This supports the guide’s overall message that everyone deals with loss differently, but the reader is not alone.
Similarly, it’s important to find the words to alert older people to the risk of fraud, and explain how they can avoid being a victim of scams, without scaring them. Scamwise uses practical language and a simple structure, like Do and Don’t lists for different types of scam, to get the most important points across.
Independent Age’s chief executive says making the charity’s public information accessible and useful to older people and their families is a priority, as is producing guides that make “complicated issues easy to understand”.
The impact can be considerable – and well worth the effort of writing and rewriting content, inviting comments and contributions, and testing draft versions with the target audience.