Plain Language trends

Dec 8, 2023 | Plain Language Institute

International Plain Language Day 2023 with PEG

Written by Sarah Slabbert

In Plain Language

This article was originally published in the newsletter of the Professional Editors’ Guild, PEGboard (December 2023).

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) published the first international Standard for Plain Language* in June 2023. On International Plain Language Day 2023 (13 October), the Plain Language Institute hosted a webinar to tell PEG members all about the new Standard. In this article we share the key takeaways from the webinar. 

*Note: We write Plain Language with capital letters to distinguish the technical term from the lay word meaning ‘simple language’. 

About the ISO

The ISO has published more than 24 500 standards. Standards are written and maintained by volunteer international experts who are appointed by the ISO’s 167 members. Each ISO member represents a different country.

The South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) represents our country in the ISO.

The Standard was developed by Plain Language experts from all over the world 

The project to develop the ISO Standard for Plain Language was initiated by the International Plain Language Federation (IPLF) in 2019 (the IPLF has a blog on their website that tells the story of the journey to develop the ISO Plain Language Standard). The IPLF is the umbrella organisation of the three Plain Language organisations, namely the Center for Plain Language, Clarity and the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN). 

The ISO has several technical committees. Technical Committee 37, which deals with language and terminology standards, established Working Group 11 to develop the Plain Language Standard. 

Working Group 11 comprises Plain Language experts from 25 countries. These experts were each appointed by their country’s national standards body to serve on the working group. The ISO also appointed the Center for Plain Language, Clarity, PLAIN and the International Institute of Information Design as liaison organisations to the working group. The combined experience of the experts serving on Working Group 11, as well as the most recent research on Plain Language, informed the development of the first ISO Standard for Plain Language.

The Standard is based on the international definition of Plain Language

The IPLF adopted an international definition of Plain Language in 2014. The definition states:

‘A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily:

  • find what they need,
  • understand what they find, and
  • use that information.’

The ISO Standard is based on this definition. The Standard translates the definition into four governing principles. The principles are: 

  • Principle 1: Readers get what they need (relevant) 
  • Principle 2: Readers can easily find what they need (findable) 
  • Principle 3: Readers can easily understand what they find (understandable) 
  • Principle 4: Readers can easily use the information (usable). 

The Standard (ISO 24495-1:2023) defines ‘reader’ as a ‘member of the target audience of the document’. 

‘Document’ is defined as a ‘set of printed or digital information, primarily in the form of text’.

The Standard emphasises a shift in the focus on Plain Language 

The four Plain Language principles do not stand alone. They work together to describe a content-development process that delivers a specific user experience (UX). For a user, a document would be usable (Principle 4) if the information in it is relevant (Principle 1), findable (Principle 2) and understandable (Principle 3). 

The Standard therefore emphasises the shift in the focus of Plain Language that the Plain Language Institute has also experienced over the past few years. 

Relevant, findable, understandable, usable.

Relationship of the four principles

Source: ISO 24495-1:2023 

In the past, misconceptions about Plain Language often limited the value that practitioners could offer an organisation. Organisations expected language practitioners to simplify the words of technical documents at the quality-assurance stage of projects, without having any recourse to research (or insights into) what the end users actually need, expect or can understand and use. The result was often superficial changes that could not remedy any major communication flaws. Many documents also remained untested among target audiences. 

Today, the concept has broadened: it covers a specific user experience which requires an organisational content development strategy that engages the user. This signifies a shift from focusing on merely simplifying language to creating the user experience described above.

What does this mean in practice for Plain Language practitioners and organisations? 

In practice, this means that, if practitioners want to deliver Plain Language to their clients, they need a team with expertise in all four of the governing principles. The table below summarises the combined expertise that practitioners require to deliver Plain Language projects to clients. 

Principle 1: Readers get what they need (relevant)

Description:

  • Understand the users, their needs and preferences
  • Understand business stakeholders and their requirements

Expertise:

  • Stakeholder mapping and engagement
  • Research (communication, sociolinguistics, behavioural linguistics)
  • Content strategy development
  • Using representative user personas

Principle 2: Readers can easily find what they need (findable) & Principle 3: Readers can easily understand what they find (understandable)

Description: Structure and shape the message using design and language

Expertise:

  • Information design, web accessibility
  • UX writing, technical writing, using Plain Language writing techniques

Principle 4: Readers can easily use the information (usable)

Description: Test the document with users and revise accordingly

Expertise:

  • UX testing
  • Business and web analytics

The implication for organisations is similar. For organisations to achieve Plain Language, they need to: 

  • ‘Translate’ the governing principles and guidelines of the Standard to define a Plain Language content-development process for the organisation. 
  • Establish cross-functional, multidisciplinary teams with the expertise listed above. The organisation would also need expertise in project and change management, monitoring and evaluation, to name a few areas. 
  • Establish organisational enablers for achieving Plain Language. These enablers include linking Plain Language to the organisation’s business goals and establishing an organisational culture conducive to Plain Language.

The Standard is a tool for us all 

The Standard will help to improve communication everywhere by giving practitioners and organisations essential guidance on how to create communication that is relevant, findable, understandable and usable – that is, to create a specific user experience. The Standard is also language neutral, so it works for most languages and across all industry sectors. The IPLF set up the Localisation and Implementation Committee to help people as they work to translate and localise the standard and have it endorsed or adopted by their countries’ standards bodies. 

The committee has developed a number of communication tools to help promote the Standard, such as:

  • a press release in 32 languages;
  • one-pagers on the benefits of the Standard for various sectors and areas of expertise;
  • frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the Standard; and
  • social media tiles, banners, posts and other communications.

You can access these resources on the ISO Standard page of the IPLF’s website.

The IPLF has also developed a bibliography to support the implementation of the ISO Plain Language Standard. The bibliography lists resources that:

  • provide empirical evidence of the Standard’s guidelines and
  • illustrate how practitioners and organisations can apply a principle or guideline.

A tool to give all South Africans access to the information that they need to exercise their rights as citizens

The new ISO Standard for Plain Language is a tool for us all, whether self-employed or part of a large organisation. The ISO Standard for Plain Language is also a tool to democratise communication – a tool to give all South Africans access to the information that they need to exercise their rights as citizens. 

Let’s therefore adopt the principles and guidelines of the Standard and put them into practice. Buy your copy of the Standard today. 

Visit the SABS’s web store or scan the QR code to buy the ISO Standard for Plain Language. 

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