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Introduction to...

Plain language

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:

  • Public
  • Funding committees
  • Ethics committees
  • Policy makers
  • Research participants
  • Research donors
  • Media outlets and journalists
  • Others who are not experts in the field
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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)
  • 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:

    • 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

Try your hand at plain language using the following examples:

Jargon

analgesic

hypertension

allergic rhinitis

pain killer, pain reliever

high blood pressure

hay fever

Acronyms

CNS

CVD

HbA1c

brain and spinal cord

cardiovascular, heart and blood vessels

blood sugar

Over abstraction

acquiesce

moreover

subsequently

agree

and, also

later

Long words

advantageous

ameliorate

detrimental

helpful, useful

improve

harmful, bad

Nominalisation

arrive at a conclusion

show a preference for

make a decision

conclude

prefer

decide

Circumlocution

a large majority of

a greater length of time

in order to

more

longer

to

Readability

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.

References

View webpage Eunson, Baden (2012) Communicating in the 21st century, Third edition, Milton, Qld. John Wiley and Sons Australia.

View webpage Eunson, Baden (2012) Plain English in Two Australian Organisations: Readability and Style Analysis.  ANZCA Conference, Adelaide, South Australia

View webpage SA health (2012) Tools for promoting health literacy – Tool 7 Assessing Readability.

View webpage Ridpath JR, Greene SM, Wiese CJ (2007); PRISM Readability Toolkit. 3rd ed. Seattle: Group Health Research Institute.

View webpage NHMRC (National Health and Medical Research Council) (1999). How to present the evidence for consumers: preparation of consumer publications. Canberra: NHMRC.

Useful PHCRIS resources

Plain language communication

View webpage How to …produce reader friendly writing

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Compiled by PHCRIS
Last updated Mon 15 Feb 2016
Suggested citation
Primary Health Care Research & Information Service (2017). Getting Started Guide: Plain Language. From phcris.org.au/guides/plain_language.php (Accessed 22 May 2017)