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From flossing to 401(k)s: Plain language speaks to our audiences

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I started my professional career as a registered dental hygienist many years ago. My colleagues and I spoke to each other in dental-ese — specialized terms necessary for our understanding and diagnostic precision. Here are a few terms overheard at the dentist’s office:

  • Acute necrotizing ulcerative gingivitis
  • Deciduous dentition
  • Buccal, lingual, distal, mesial, occlusal
  • Mucocele
  • Calculus
  • Pizza burn

(See the end of this post for the everyday versions of these terms.)

My patients? They didn’t care about my fancy dental words; they needed me to talk with them using their words so they could understand what was going on inside their mouths. Everyday words and metaphors were crucial to their understanding of and ability to improve their oral health.

Every profession has insider jargon.

As consultants and HR professionals, we live and breathe benefits, so it’s easy to forget that just outside this circle of jargoneers is our audience: Employees who don’t think about benefits except maybe — maybe — during open enrollment or when there’s a claim problem.

Most employees are not native benefits speakers; they don’t want to be and they don’t need to be.

As communicators, we need to respect that and meet them where they are. When I’m writing about benefits, I put myself in a reader’s shoes and ask, “If I knew nothing about ____________, would I understand what I’ve written?” Insert any term: coinsurance, FSA forfeitures, paycheck contributions, carriers, tax-advantaged . . . the list is endless.

Benefits are complex, kinda dry and often easy to ignore. Most of the time, all our readers really want to know is, “What’s in it for me?” When we give them more or our delivery isn’t clear, we affect their ability to take the right action.

Plain language has two levels: strategic and tactical.

Strategic — Sending the right messages to the right audiences at the right time through the right channels can do wonders for understanding and action. Without a strategic plan, messages can feel overwhelming, disjointed and perplexing — no matter how simply they’re written or beautifully they’re designed — and end up unread in a recycle bin or in the deleted-emails folder.

Tactical — It simplifies complex information and brings life to otherwise dry material. It’s all about:

  • Short paragraphs, short sentences, short words
  • Active language
  • Conversational tone with pronouns and contractions
  • Present tense
  • Everyday words
  • As little jargon as possible (if you must, define on first reference)
  • Layout, white space, images, graphics and fonts that foster readability and comprehension

Here are two paragraphs from an OE guide as they actually appear and plain language rewrites of each. The originals are real; I did not make them up.

  ORIGINAL PLAIN LANGUAGE ISSUES
Example 1: Coinsurance definition A form of cost sharing in a health plan that requires a covered employee or family member to pay a stated percentage of medical expenses after the deductible amount, if any, was paid. Once any deductible amount and coinsurance are paid, the third-party administrator or insurer is responsible for reimbursing the employee or family member for covered benefits up to allowed charges. Coinsurance rates differ if services are received from providers who are inside or outside of the network. After you meet the deductible, you and the medical plan each pay a percentage of your providers’ fees. This is called coinsurance.

Your coinsurance percentage is usually higher when you use out-of-network providers.

 

The original is hard to understand because:

· 3 lon-n-ng sentences

· No pronouns

· Passive language

· Unfamiliar language (“third-party administrator”)

· Wordy, bureaucratic tone

Example 2: POS plan description The POS is a network of physicians, hospitals and other health care providers offered through InsCo. These providers’ credentials have been reviewed by the network manager. The providers have agreed to provide their services at negotiated rates. You can generally reduce your out-of-pocket expenses by using network providers. These plans also provide international coverage for emergency and/or urgent care while traveling outside of the United States worldwide. InsCo’s Point-of-Service (POS) plan is a network of doctors, hospitals and other health care providers. You save money when you use in-network providers.

This plan also covers emergency and urgent medical care when you travel outside the U.S.

The original is hard to understand because:

· POS isn’t defined on first reference

· Lots of detail that employees don’t care about (“The providers have agreed . . .”)

· Overwritten (see last sentence – “international,” “outside the United States,” “worldwide.”)

 

Here are some other ways to keep your writing plain and simple:

  • Repetition — Calling a benefit the same thing every time helps readers understand and retain it. If an employer offers AD&D insurance they call “accident insurance” and a supplemental benefit called “24-hour accident insurance,” make sure you refer to each benefit the same way every time. Every. Single. Time.
  • Violate grammar rules — I know this may be hard, but few of us write like we speak; for writing to be conversational and friendly, you’re gonna end sentences with prepositions, start a few sentences with conjunctions and use singular “they.” It’s OK; your writing will be much friendlier and the message easier to grasp. Even if your client prefers a more formal tone, you can still simplify it with short sentences and paragraphs, active language, present tense, etc.
  • Metaphors — I once heard a ConsumerMedical representative describe their website as “WebMD on steroids.” I’d never seen their website but those three words helped me know what to expect.
  • Economize Look for and Delete words you don’t need.
  • Know your audience, watch your assumptions, test when you can — If your project allows you to use slang and buzzwords, don’t assume everyone in your audience will understand them.
  • Turn on Word’s grammar and readability tool I usually shoot for a Flesch readability score of 60, although it’s a challenge in our biz. And, I try to write at an 8th grade reading level, even if I’m writing for a highly educated audience. If your reading level is too high, bring it down by:
    • Making many shorter sentences from long ones (semicolons are your friends)
    • Changing passive voice to active (“I see dead people,” instead of, “Dead people are seen by me”)
    • Breaking up long paragraphs
    • Using graphics instead of text to illustrate facts and functions

A final thought

So, as you go forth and simplify, let this quote from Albert Einstein be your mantra: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

If you think plain language is “dumbing down,” just think how much you appreciate it when the IRS explains a tax deduction in a way you can actually understand, or when your dental hygienist describes a potential problem without slipping into dental gobbledygook.

For more great reading on plain language, visit:

Dental terms defined:

  1. Trench mouth
  2. Baby teeth
  3. Sides of teeth: Cheek, tongue, back, front and top
  4. Blocked saliva duct
  5. Tartar (calcified plaque)
  6. Pizza burn (this is a freebie) — blisters that form on the roof of your mouth when it comes into contact with hot cheese on pizza, scalding coffee, etc. It’s a real thing and that’s its real name.

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