Monday, May 9, 2011

US plain-language awards dinner

Christopher Balmford, MD

The second-ever US plain-language Awards were presented by the Center for Plain Language at the end of April. For the second year, I had the honour, and the fun, of being the MC (or “emcee”) for the event.

The Awards
At the Awards dinner, in the National Press Club in Washington D.C, the Center announced 3 categories of winners:

1.  the ClearMark Awards — for documents that are stunningly, refreshingly clear. This year, there were 28 finalists from 8 categories.

2.  the WonderMark Awards — 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; and

3. the TurnAround Award — for an organisation that, after “winning” a WonderMark Award one year, successfully rewrites the relevant communication in plain language.

Last year the theme for the Awards was Demand to Understand. This year the theme was, Words Impact Lives.

Guest speaker
The guest speaker was Kristi Kaeppline a Senior Advisor in the US Security Exchange Commission’s Division of Risk, Strategy, and Financial Innovation. Kristi spoke:
  • about the aspects of plain language which resonate, and — sadly — those that fail to resonate, with executives and bureaucrats; and
  • how this affects their decision-making on plain-language issues.
Kristi had a good line. She said, we need to make ”plain language the rule rather than the exception”. That phrase is my nomination for the theme for the Center’s Awards next year.

WonderMark winners
The WonderMark Grand Prize — for the most confused, convoluted, inarticulate, frustrating, baffling, elusive, and mind-bogglingly unhelpful of the entries the Center received — went to Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Maryland, for its Care First Explanation of Benefits.

You can see the “winning” document here.

One of the judges commented:

"The design is repulsive, the organization atrocious, and most importantly, it's impossible to understand what the insurance company is explaining. If executives were required to read their company documents, we might not have documents as terrible as these."

Enough said.

One of the winners of a WonderMark Award was a ballot paper produced by the New Jersey County of Gloucester.

The ballot contains a public question for citizens to vote on about an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution. The question is difficult to understand. So, to make things clear, the ballot includes an "interpretive statement". Sadly, that supposedly clear interpretative statement is no help at all.

Here is a copy of the document:

Wondermark 1 -- NJ 2010 ballot question

The thing is, there is no need for the question to be so awkward — after all, the substance of the amendment is pretty straight-forward. In a sane world, the question on the ballot would be clear. In turn:
  • there would be no need for the interpretative statement — so the duplicated efforts of writers, and of readers, would be saved;
  • citizens would be better informed and able to make better decisions; and
  • the community’s respect for our democratic system would be enhanced.
All thanks to 20 minutes effort to improve a few lines of text.

Grand Prize ClearMark
The 2011 Grand Mark ClearMark Award went to the Internal Revenue Service for 2 rewritten forms.

You can see the winning documents here.

The judges commented that the highlights of the IRS’s project were:
  • Before rewriting anything, the team spent time analysing the existing document AND the existing environment.
  • The project involved a systemic effort that looked at processes as well as the documents.
  • The team was able to combine documents and eliminate documents — so as to reduce and rationalize the overall amount of information.
  • The team tested the draft rewrites on a sample audience.
In light of those comments, it’s understandable why the project produced such an outstanding document. Indeed, anyone seeking to rewrite a document should be thinking about making sure their project involves similar activities.

TurnAround Award winner
The Center’s first-ever TurnAround Award was presented to Chase for its card member agreement. In 2010, the original agreement earned a WonderMark Award.  Chase took the award seriously, and revised the agreement so that it presented information to credit card holders in a clear, concise format.

You can see the “before” and “after” of the Chase document here.

All power to those WonderMark winners who receive the Award in the spirit with which it is intended, and who go on to turn their communications around.

Next plain-language conference
By the way, the next plain-language conference is on in Stockholm in June 2011, you can read about it here.

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

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