Toward a theoretical framework for plain language

This September I embarked on a strange journey. Like Dorothy following the yellow-brick road to the Emerald City, I set out on a path that should lead me to a theoretical framework for plain language. Like Dorothy, I’ve never seen my destination and I only have a vague notion of what it will look like. Every now and then I wish I had a Tin Man by my side to shout: “There it is!” Instead, I have a voice in my head that’s more like Toto—barking at things that may or may not be significant.

What is a theoretical framework?

A theoretical framework is a “lens … that shapes the kinds of questions asked, informs how data are collected and analyzed, and provides a call for action or change” (Creswell, J. W. (2009) Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches 3rd Ed. Los Angeles, CA; Sage).

I see a theoretical framework for plain language as having 3 aspects:

  • cognitive
  • rhetorical
  • ethical

Cognition and plain language

To reach people, particularly in print, we need to have some understanding of how people think, understand, and decide. This was the focus of Dr. Mark Hochhauser’s presentation at PLAIN 2013. Hochhauser is a readability consultant in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

He said that people have 2 main thinking systems, logical/analytical and emotional/intuitive and that people make decisions based on emotion and intuition first. Often, people will use logic to back up that emotional decision, he said.

What does that mean for plain language? When a person is confronted with any form of communication that “turns them off” the decisions they make about the content are already being formed by the emotion or intuition they feel. If they don’t like the look of a document, they are already predisposed not to like the content.

In her presentation at PLAIN 2013, Karen Shriver, of KSA Communication Design & Research Inc. noted that it only takes 50 milliseconds for a person to decide whether they like what they see in a document or not.  What don’t most people like? Shriver found that dense text puts people off. Some are so put off by what they perceive to be a wall of words, they will not even begin to read. Others may begin reading, but if a sentence is too long, or it takes too long to find the information they expect, they abandon the task.

Instead, Shriver found that people prefer to use words and images together, allowing each to inform the other.

Hochhauser also said that people can only hold about 4 to 7 different pieces of information in their brains at one time and that this ability peaks between ages 25 and 35. In addition, people’s cognitive abilities are affected by a wide range of physical and psychological ailments including age, diabetes, and just having spent some time in hospital.

What does this mean for plain language? It means that we have to break information down into small chunks for everyone. We can’t know who in our audience has a heart condition, who has ADHD, and who is under a great deal of stress.

Shriver also noted that a person’s ability to read, and understand what they read, is flexible. It depends on the task, the context, and the reader’s motivation. For example, a person’s ability to understand what they read may be at its height when that person has settled into a comfy chair, with a warm cup of tea and is about to open a long-awaited novel. That same person’s ability to understand what they read may be at its lowest when they have just had their only child taken into custody by a child protection agency. Their heightened emotional condition may make it difficult for them to understand what is happening so explanations as to what to do next must be clear, simple, and easy to remember.

As writers, we must always keep in mind that some of our readers will have at least one thing going on in their lives that will affect cognition.  Knowledge about cognition gives us a reason for limiting sentences to one idea and for breaking information into smaller pieces through the use of headings. It’s not dumbing down, it’s making information accessible.

Rhetoric and plain language

Dr. Neil James of the Plain English Foundation told those gathered at PLAIN 2013 that plain language falls squarely into the field of rhetoric. That is, we deal with text that is written by an author, to an audience, for a specific purpose, and in a given setting (Purdue Online Writing Lab, Elements of Rhetorical Situations).

That does seem rather basic as one could argue that all texts are written by authors to audiences etc. The difference here is that plain language practitioners are constantly aware of these elements of rhetoric. They are always top of mind. But they may be given a different priority than in other forms of writing.

In plain language audience is not just one of 5 elements, it is the #1 concern. In her presentation at PLAIN 2013, Diane Macgregor of Communications Nova Scotia spoke about 6 things we, as plain language practitioners, need to keep in mind about our audiences:

  • motivation
  • knowledge and interest in the topic being discussed
  • reading ability
  • emotional state
  • attention span
  • context (or setting) in which the reader will read the document

Notice that when plain language practitioners think of “setting” we think of it in terms of the audience. Where will the audience encounter the document? Under what circumstances?

Purpose is also determined in relation to the audience. Generally speaking, plain language practitioners prepare documents with a practical purpose, that is, they usually want the reader to act in some way. A question plain language practitioners should always ask a client is: “What do you want your audience to do?”

Where is the author in all this? You can’t have a text without an author. In plain language, the author is a researcher and communicator who puts the needs of the audience before their own. This is not a common way of looking at communication. As Macgregor pointed out in her presentation at PLAIN 2013, “Clients don’t often know what they need to say. They only know what they want to say.”

Ethics and plain language

Deborah Bosley of The Plain Language Group told those gathered at the opening of the PLAIN 2013 conference that plain language is “doing the work of the people.”

Dr. Russell Willerton, who spoke at PLAIN 2013, is currently working on a book that looks at plain language from an ethical point of view. Willerton describes plain language as “giv[ing] citizens and consumers better access to their rights.” He argues, along with Karen Shriver and Sandra Fisher-Martins, that “overly complicated documents prevent citizens’ full participation in civic life and so create ‘information apartheid.’”

At PLAIN 2013, Willerton discussed his model to help communicators know when plain language ought to be used. He calls it BUROC.

B is for bureaucracy. People often encounter bureaucracy when they need a driver’s licence, a permit to serve alcohol, to register a business or a non-profit organization. These, according to Willerton, are occasions when plain language is appropriate as most people will not be familiar with the bureaucratic or legal language often used in these situations.

U is for urgent or unfamiliar. Whenever a person is in unfamiliar territory or needs information in a hurry, plain language ought to be used, says Willerton.

R-O is for rights-oriented. People should not have to jump through verbal hoops just to exercise their rights, says Willerton.

C is for critical. Sometimes information is more than urgent. It’s a matter of life and death. In these situations, plain language must be used, says Willerton.

A theoretical framework takes shape

Wait. Toto’s yapping. There’s something way ahead. It’s pretty fuzzy but I think I see a shape. Is it a spire? Nope. Too flat. It’s like a table but it only has 3 legs. It’s a stool! A 3-legged stool! Well that’s kind of disappointing. I was hoping for something a little more elaborate, I mean, I’ve come all this way. And yet, it’s oddly appropriate. What I’ve come to is a 3-legged stool. Plain language rests on the legs of cognition, rhetoric, and ethics.

Whew! Now I can rest my weary legs awhile.

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