We need plain language to improve communication
Experts in many fields develop their own language; this is known as ‘jargon’. The use of jargon and technical terms simplifies communication between members of the expert groups and professionals in the field because fewer words are needed to discuss concepts and practices. Jargon has its place, and is sometimes necessary. It also demonstrates familiarity with and understanding of the field. But jargon can become a ‘secret’ language, having the effect of excluding people outside of the expert group. When your aim is to communicate beyond the expert group, the use of plain language can help to reach an audience that is very broad in terms of experience, education, and interest. As noted by Baden Eunson (an Australian specialist in plain English), “Writers of plain English let their audience concentrate on the message instead of being distracted by complicated language”.
The less jargon we use, the more accessible our message becomes for:
- Funding committees
- Ethics committees
- Policy makers
- Research participants
- Research donors
- Media outlets and journalists
- Others who are not experts in the field
Audience is key
Know who your audience is, and include only the information that they really need to know. The following list of questions can help you to focus on your audience and their needs and interests:
- What is their likely interest in the subject?
- What is their literacy level?
- Why should the reader care about the findings?
- Is the content age and culturally sensitive?
Know your content
Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” but he also said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Plain language is not dumbing down; it is explaining your research in terms that others can understand without losing the message.
Begin by breaking the content down into parts to guide your audience:
- Why was the study done? (background)
- What did the researchers do? (methods)
- What did the researchers find? (results)
- What do the findings mean? (discussion)
- How can you use this information? (application)
- Use language your audience can easily understand. See the examples below and links listed at the end of this Guide for alternative words that can be used to replace jargon and complicated word choices without losing the meaning.
- Use the active voice, ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘you’, e.g. “we will consider the evidence”, not the passive voice, e.g. “The evidence will be considered”
- Use short sentences, maximum 15-20 words
- Write in a conversational style
- Limit paragraphs to one main idea
- Minimise use of jargon, long words, acronyms, nominalisation (use of a verb as a noun), over abstraction and circumlocution (indirect way of speaking)
- Organise and filter content with your readers’ needs in mind. This comes back to knowing your audience; tailor your presentation to meet their needs.
- Use reader-friendly formatting so that your content looks easy to read, e.g. use bullet points and white space between points
Language and organisation
Both the language used and the layout of your findings will influence how effectively the message is taken up by an audience. The main aim is to communicate your research ideas and findings, not to impress the audience with your command of jargon. Here are a number of simple tips that can make all the difference:
Try your hand at plain language using the following examples:
pain killer, pain reliever
high blood pressure
brain and spinal cord
cardiovascular, heart and blood vessels
arrive at a conclusion
show a preference for
make a decision
a large majority of
a greater length of time
in order to
How do you know if you have pitched your talk or text at the right level? Readability is a measure of whether the ideas expressed in writing can be understood.
There are lots of tools available to help you measure general readability but it is important to keep in mind that these only analyse content. They do not take into account use of passive/active voice, or organisation of the text, or the audience’s motivation or prior knowledge. Use these tools as a guide, but remember that the best indication is gained from asking someone representative of your audience to give feedback on your document or presentation.
Most tools or indices are based on the average number of syllables per word and words per sentence. The school grade level required to understand the text is calculated by analysing 10 sentences or more.
Longer words = more syllables = more difficult to read and understand
Helpful readability tools/indices include:
- SMOG, Simplified Measure Of Gobbledygook: estimates years of education required to understand a piece of writing.
- Flesch-Kincaid: indicates comprehension difficulty (K level refers to US grade level required for comprehension). This tool is in-built within Microsoft Word applications. Note that all grade levels of 12 and above are reported as 12.
- Gunning Fog: indicates years of formal education needed to understand a text on the first read through.
NHMRC Australia suggested in 1999 that in the absence of sufficient research, a reading grade of 7 as applied by the Anti-Cancer council of Victoria might be appropriate for communicating with consumers and more recently SA Health, indicated that the standard reading grade recommended for Australian consumers is generally grade 8. But it is important to remember that this relates to information for a general audience. The acceptable grade level might be increased or decreased for a more specific or selected audience, e.g. primary school children, health care professionals, or academic specialists.
When to use plain language
As you can see from the diagram below, use of plain language is required across the research process, from funding applications to publication of outcomes.
Like health care, the process of research is complex, but if you want your research to make a difference you will need to communicate with all of these groups. Many grant applications require a plain language summary, e.g. NHMRC, ARC and increasingly journals, e.g. PLOS Medicine, and organisations, e.g. the Cochrane Collaboration, also include plain language summaries to improve accessibility of research for consumers and other groups interested in the outcomes but unfamiliar with the jargon and technical language.
Eunson B. (2012). Communicating in the 21st century, Third edition, Milton, Qld. John Wiley and Sons Australia.
Eunson B. (2012). Plain English in Two Australian Organisations: Readability and Style Analysis. ANZCA Conference, Adelaide, South Australia
SA health. (2012). Tools for promoting health literacy – Tool 7 Assessing Readability.
Ridpath JR, Greene SM, Wiese CJ. (2007). PRISM Readability Toolkit. 3rd ed. Seattle: Group Health Research Institute.
NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council). (1999). How to present the evidence for consumers: preparation of consumer publications. Canberra: NHMRC.
e-Learning and plain language guides
Group Health Research Program for Readability in Science & Medicine (PRISM) online (free) readability course for science and medicine
Cheng C, Dunn M. (2015). Health Literacy and the Internet: a study on the readability of Australian online health information, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health. doi: 10.1111/1753-6405.12341
Alternative word suggestions
Program for Readability in Science & Medicine (PRISM) Toolkit, Appendix B (page 38)
Plain Language Thesaurus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from plainlanguage.gov [Word doc 1.5MB]
Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (2017). Getting Started Guide: Plain Language. From phcris.org.au/guides/plain_language.php (Accessed 13 Dec 2017)