Do You Know How To Make It Plain?

Over the past week, I’ve been working (via an ongoing email exchange with my colleague Sandy) on a description in exactly 15 words (no more, no fewer) of the services that our new company, HealthDataViz, offers. We are completing an application to be federally certified as a small, woman-owned business. The relevant agency allows a maximum of 15 words on this part of the application.

Trying to satisfy that stringent requirement has sorely tempted me to indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological and syntactical constructions (you know, really long, complex words in peculiar combinations) and doodling.


Seriously, struggling to find precisely the right 15 words got me thinking about health literacy and plain language — clear, simple writing that people can actually understand and use.

The need for plain language does not mean that we should “dumb down” our healthcare content; it acknowledges that our healthcare environment is so complex that folks with average or even above-average literacy skills may not be able to understand information well enough to act on it effectively. It’s our job, therefore, to communicate it clearly — not only to patients, but to everyone who needs what we convey: documentation for colleagues about our reports and dashboards; research posters; e-mail messages. We must commit to plain language.

Here are some guidelines and strategies, with links to additional resources:

Plain Language: Overall Approach

  • Use language your audience can easily understand.
  • Write in a conversational style, as if you were speaking.
  • Organize and filter content with your readers’ needs in mind.
  • Use reader-friendly formatting, so that your document (or web content) looks open, inviting, and easy to read.

Plain Language: Strategies

  1. Research your audience and evaluate its needs.
    Who is your audience? (Note: it is not the general public or some nameless user.) Get specific: create profiles and personas that reflect the real nature of that audience.
  1. Check the reading level of your text.
    Nearly half of American adults read at or below an 8th-grade level. Access “Checking Readability in Microsoft Word™” here.
  1. Choose common, everyday words.
    Avoid medical, technical, and academic|scientific jargon, and long, complex words. Where possible, use a simple vocabulary — and when there really is no suitable alternative, include an example, an analogy, or a visual aid to get the information across. Access the CDC Plain Language Thesaurus for Health Communications here.
  1. Use the active voice.
    The subject of your sentence should act instead of being acted upon. For example, “You will be asked questions about your health” is passive. The active voice, “We will ask you questions about your health,” is stronger and clearer.
  1. Keep sentences short and to the point
    (the 15-word limit referred to above is based on this principle).
  1. Limit paragraphs to one main idea.
    Start with a clear, concise topic sentence; remove or relocate any details that do not support it.
  1. Use clear descriptive headings and exceptional organization.
    Organize your document in a logical manner and use meaningful headings that describe the content of each section. Use large fonts and bold letters to make the sections stand out; use numbered lists (for sequential or ranked information) and bullets that are easy to read quickly and take in easily.
  1. Use adequate white space and margins.
    Give your audience a visual break by separating blocks of dense copy with white space between paragraphs and headings. A minimum 1″ margin all around is a good guideline; side margins can be 1.25″ if the page is full.
  1. Give it (and yourself) a rest.
    Put any document that you have been working on down for a day or more, then go back and proofread it. You will be amazed what fresh eyes will see.
  1. Read your document out loud.
    I use this simple technique all the time. It’s the best way to find errors and test the overall flow and clarity of a text.
  1. Give your document to someone else to read.
    We all need good editors; find yours, then ask for and accept feedback. Your work is always better when you are open to other people’s suggestions about what is clear and compelling (or not) in the documents you’ve created. (Trust me. I would not have lasted this long without great editors).
  1. Remind yourself on a daily basis that plain language is absolutely necessary!

I hope that the principles, strategies, and resources listed here will get you on the road to simple, easy-to-understand writing and speaking. I also hope you will keep reading, because in my next newsletter I will explain why plain language alone is not enough to persuade your audience to use the information you present to improve. (Hey, I’ve read a ton of exercise and diet books but I still like the couch better than the treadmill!)

Stay tuned for communication techniques that spark change for the better.

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