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People have plain English power

People have plain English power

By Rob Zorn

22 June 2009

Don’t you hate it when a business is happy to take your money but doesn’t think communicating with you clearly is important?

Gobbledygook can come in many forms. It could be an obscure clause in your insurance policy that leaves you high and dry. It’s frequently found in companies’ terms and conditions of service, or in baffling forms put out by government departments.

When information isn’t clear, the result is often hurt and hardship. People miss out on benefits or insurance payouts, find themselves in legal strife, or purchase things that don’t suit their needs.

We shouldn’t have to put up with this in a free and fair democratic society—and the truth is we don’t have to. A movement is on the rise in New Zealand to stamp out gobbledygook, and you can easily be part of it.

All it takes is for you to go back to any organisation that has tried to bamboozle you and say, “I don’t understand this. Please give me something that makes more sense.”

After all, if you can’t understand what a company is telling you, it’s not your fault. It’s their problem, and they need to fix it.

Another thing you could do is nominate them for a People’s Choice “Brainstrain” award in the 2009 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards.

Each year the Awards are held to help get rid of bad writing by rewarding organisations that do make an effort to be honest and clear, and by putting the spotlight on some pieces of gobbledygook along the way.

Making a People’s Choice nomination is a powerful way to tell an organisation you like its clear and upfront approach, or that you’re not prepared to put up with its bewildering jargon.

Your nomination could make a real difference. For example, when the Ministry of Social Development received a “Brainstrain” award for a document widely used by the public, the Ministry took it on the chin and said, “Fair enough.” The document was promptly made much easier to understand—to the benefit of a lot of people.

So why not become part of the movement? You can make a People’s Choice nomination at the Plain English Awards website: Click on the People’s Choice Nomination link. Nominations are free and close on 27 July. Winners will be announced on 18 September.

Remember, organisations are slow to change unless consumers press them. The Plain English Awards give all New Zealanders the power to push for positive change.

The 2009 WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards:
Questions and answers

This document comprises two parts:

• Questions and answers about plain English
• Questions and answers about the annual WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards.

Questions and answers about plain English

What is plain English?

Plain English is a style of writing in which the language, structure, and presentation of a document all work together to help the reader. A document written in plain English is easy to read, understand, and act upon after just one reading.

Why is plain English important?

Bad writing has both a financial and a human cost. People can be hurt by poorly expressed information—for example signing a loan agreement where they do not fully understand its financial impact or missing out on entitlements because they do not understand the forms they need to fill out.

In terms of government, it is essential to democracy that laws and legal requirements are easily understood and that people making decisions have access to understandable information about those decisions and their implications.

Why should businesses be concerned about communicating in plain English?

In tough economic times businesses that communicate well will be more likely to survive because they will retain customer loyalty. Studies show three quarters of consumers don’t trust businesses that used poor writing, and almost a third say they wouldn’t buy from them. Estimates are that poor communications could be costing New Zealand businesses up to $7 billion a year in lost sales.

Having a plain English culture at work can also lead to fewer mistakes, complaints, and inquiries, resulting in increased efficiency and significant business cost savings.

Questions and answers about the annual WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards

What is the purpose of the annual WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards?

The annual Plain English Awards aim to help get rid of bad writing by:

• raising public awareness of the need for and benefits of plain English
• encouraging a public preference for organisations that choose to communicate in plain English.

Why should organisations consider entering?

Entering the Awards is a great way an organisation can show it is serious about the benefits of plain English.

Organisations enter to:

• gain recognition for their staff who have worked hard at developing plain English communications
• get an idea of how well their efforts at communicating in plain English are going
• show their clients and customers they are committed to dealing with them honestly and clearly.

What prizes can be won?

The top prize of $10,000 is given each year to the organisation with the best over-all commitment to having a plain English culture.

Prizes are awarded in all categories, however, and include:

• a 1-hour brand analysis from BrandNew
• StyleWriter licenses from Editor Software (UK)
• subscription to usability tools from Optimal Usability
• online web content training from Contented.

How can organisations enter?

Organisations can enter their documents or websites by choosing the appropriate category on the Plain English Awards website and submitting an entry form. Organisations must have an office registered in New Zealand to enter. The Plain English Awards website is Entires close 27 July.

What are the main categories?

There are five main categories in the 2009 Plain English Awards:

• Plain English Champion
• Best Plain English Document
• Best Plain English Website
• Best Sentence Transformation
• People’s Choice.

Altogether there are 12 awards designed to acknowledge documents from both the government and the private business sectors. More information about individual awards is available on the Plain English Awards website:

How do the Awards help empower the general public?

In the People’s Choice category members of the public can nominate documents or websites for either Best or “Brainstrain” awards. This empowers ordinary consumers to either reward a business for communicating clearly or call it to account for communicating poorly.

Historically, there has been significant media interest in People’s Choice category results. This tends to put a real spotlight on documents that can cause people harm and has proven to be a powerful motivator towards those documents being rewritten in plain English.

What is the dreaded “Brainstrain” award?

The “Brainstrain” award is part of the People’s Choice category. It recognises poor writing and is especially for documents which could adversely affect a lot of people. Instead of the normal elegant trophy, the prize is a rubbish bin filled with sour worms.

To keep the focus on the positive, however, prizes for “Brainstrain” award winners also include free plain English training and software.

The “Brainstrain” award is a friendly poke at individuals and organisations that, even with the best of intentions, produce confusing information. When a document is rewritten in Plain English after receiving the “Brainstrain” award, a significant, positive impact is made in New Zealand.

What is the Best Sentence Transformation award?

The Best Sentence Transformation Award recognises organisations that have at least made a start on improving their plain English. This award makes it very easy to enter. Organisations only need to submit a single sentence they have made easier to understand.

Who runs the WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards?

The Plain English Awards are run by the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust, which is a non-profit organisation supported entirely by sponsorship and donations.

What are the important dates for this year’s WriteMark New Zealand Plain English Awards?

Award nominations close on 27 July.

Winners will be announced on 18 September at a ceremony in Wellington hosted by Fair Go presenter Kevin Milne.

How are the Awards judged?

An independent panel of professional plain English experts and advocates judges the entries and decides the finalists and winners in each category.

This year’s judges are:

• David Russell, Chief Executive, Consumers' Institute
• Kristina Halvorson, Founder of Brain Traffic and web content expert
• Jacqueline Harrison, Senior Lecturer, School of Communication Studies,

AUT University

• Neil James, Plain English Foundation, Australia.

Who are some past winners?

Past winners by category include:

Plain English Champion

• New Zealand Trade and Enterprise (2008)
• Ministry of Education (2008)
• Castalia (2007)
• AJ Park (2006)

Best Plain English Document

• Cancer Society of New Zealand (2008)
• ASB Bank (2008)
• PHARMAC (2007)
• IAG New Zealand Limited (2007)
• Greater Wellington Regional Council (2006)
• Ministry of Fisheries (2006)

Best New Zealand Plain English Website

• Ministry for Culture & Heritage (2008)
• Seafood Industry Training Organisation (2008)
• National Library of New Zealand (2007)

Best Sentence Transformation

• Steelbro New Zealand Limited (2008)

People’s Choice

• Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management (2008)
• Land Transport New Zealand (2008)
• ACC (2007)

People’s Choice—”Brainstrain” Document

• Pacific Blue Airlines (2008)
• Embassy of the United States, Wellington, New Zealand (2008)
• New Zealand Qualifications Authority (2007)
• StudyLink—part of the Ministry of Social Development (2006)


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