Monday, June 21, 2010

US plain-language Awards dinner — Cleardocs part of the show

Christopher Balmford, MD

Plain language took a big step forward in the United States of America when the Center for Plain Language held its first ever ClearMark Awards — they were announced over a dinner in late April at the National Press Club in Washington D.C.

I was lucky enough to be the MC (or “emcee”) for the event — which gave me a chance to poke some gentle fun at bad documents and to honour great documents.

You can hear an interview with me about the Awards on ABC radio in Canberra here. (To listen, scroll down on that page to the heading “Welcome to Plain Language” then click the “play” icon.)

The Awards
At the Awards dinner, the Center announced 2 categories of winners:
  • the ClearMark awards — they’re the good ones, for documents that are stunningly, refreshingly clear. There were 41 finalists from 9 categories.
  • the WonderMark awards — they’re the bad ones, for documents that are hard to understand. The reason these awards are named the “WonderMark”, is that the documents make you think “I wonder what it means . . . I wonder who wrote it . . . I wonder what they were doing when they wrote it . . . I wonder what they thought they were doing when they wrote it . . . I wonder what they had for breakfast the day they wrote it.”
ClearMark winner — Best document
The Grand Prize of the ClearMark awards went to a company that has done a marvelous job of writing for its reader’s needs. The Award went to Healthwise for its “Conversation on Dealing with low Back Pain”, you can view it here.

WonderMark winner — Worst document
The WonderMark Grand Prize — for the most confused, frustrating, and mind-bogglingly unhelpful document — went to a document that is well known to Australians who have flown to the US. The winner was the green form you fill out for the US immigration authorities on the plane when flying to the US. The Form is called the I-94W Non-immigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record.

The Form is so hard to understand and fill out that Qantas aircrew routinely say to passengers something like:
“This form is hard to fill out correctly. Don’t worry if you make a mistake, we can give you another copy. But the secret to filling it out correctly is to start at the bottom, so remember ‘bottom’s up’.”

The way the Form asks for information is remarkably obscure — at least it is to people unfamiliar with the design of US government forms.  You can see the Form here

If you try to complete the Form, then to make the mistake of putting information in on the wrong row is embarassingly easy. Here’s why:
  • The first row of the table asks you for one piece of information (your family name). So you happily write your name in that row.
  • At the end of that first row — just below the line you write on — the Form says “Birth date (DD/MM/YY)”. So if you have a short-ish family name, then there’s room on the first row of the table to write in your date of birth (after your name).
  • But your date of birth is meant to go in at the end of the second row.

Once you’ve started putting things on the wrong row, your whole Form ends up haywire. This happens a lot. I’ve done it (blush). In fact, one of the Qantas aircrew estimated that 25% of people make a mistake filling out the Form and need another copy.  Some people need more than 2 copies.

At the Awards dinner, I spoke about the Form, pointed out the above and then talked about my experiences with the Form as a visitor to the US and about how a country’s communications influences how it is perceived.

I explained to the audience at the dinner that when my flight to the US landed (on my way to the Awards) I was pleasantly surprised in the Los Angeles airport arrivals hall to be treated as — and referred to as — a visitor.

On all my previous trips to the US, I was (it sounds weird) referred to as “an alien”. For example, when I got into the arrivals hall on previous trips, a helpful official would say “US passport holders to lines 1 and 2. Aliens to lines 12 through 16.”

I remember wondering, “Where on earth do I go?”

This time, in the arrival hall it was lovely to be referred to as, and treated as, “a visitor” — much more welcoming, much more human.

It’s curious how such a simple change in a communication, can have such a dramatic impact on the reader or the listener.

As part of presenting the ClearMarkAward at the dinner, I said something like:
“As a visitor to the US (and not as an alien), but as a friend, can I say — respectfully — the green arrivals Form document doesn’t do you guys justice. Especially when you think about the voice of your nation’s brand."

The challenge is to make the style of legislation and of government writing live up to the inspiring ideals of the nation — just as a business’s documents need to live up to and enhance the brand values of the business.

When I think about the voice of the United States of America I think of the Declaration of Independence. It’s clear, it’s even poetic — yet it deals with large, complicated topics. It uses some unfamiliar words — for example “inalienable”. And some of its sentences are long. But even so, its theme, its message and its purpose are clear.

Imagine if more people in US took the approach taken by the people who write the documents that were the finalists for the ClearMark Awards. Imagine if writers across the US were to set the style of the Declaration of Independence as their goal and to try to write in that style when they wrote at work.

If more people did that, then there’d be much less chance of ending-up with the little gem the I-94W Non-immigrant Visa Waiver Arrival/Departure Record.

Maybe the Department of Homeland Security should ask some of the people who won the ClearMark Awards to rewrite the Form.

You know a lot of us want to change the world. Maybe the place to start is to improve our written communications.

Center’s ongoing campaign for Clarity
The Center has started a campaign demanding clear communication. You can see the campaign’s website — with some entertaining videos — here.

Cleardocs and plain language
For information about Cleardocs and plain language, see our site here.

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