Plain Language Resources
Communicating with communities is an important part of the research licensing process in the North, and researchers have a responsibility to communicate effectively.
It is important to remember that many community organizations in the NWT do not have staff with the technical knowledge required to read scientifically-written research proposals. In addition, these organizations review applications from a broad scope of research fields, and the technical language varies from one field to the next. Plain Language is, therefore, the key to effective communication with the communities.
This website provides an introduction to Plain Language Writing, as well as a list of resources to help develop plain language communications.
Communicating using Plain Language
|Here are some tips for plain language communications taken from Cheryl Stephens’ Introduction to Plain Language. |
- Write with personal pronouns: you, we, I.
- Use a tone that suits your audience: avoid unnecessary formality.
- Use an active rather than passive voice.
- Be direct; eliminate ambiguities.
- Cut out any text that is not essential.
- Use titles and subtitles that are informative.
- Explain only one idea in each sentence.
- Make the links between ideas obvious.
- Keep sentences short - 25 words on average.
- Keep the subject and verb close together at the beginning of the sentence.
- Simplify your language.
- Use common words.
- Use technical words with care: define or provide descriptive examples.
- Cut out jargon.
- Avoid acronyms.
An important part of the licensing process involves communicating with communities that may be affected by your research. Communicating effectively with communities is an on-going process that involves many steps, such as developing your research project idea, submitting your research application, meeting with communities to hear their feedback and input, and presenting your findings when your research is complete. These communications must be meaningful to your audience.
Many organizations in the NWT that review research licence applications and reports do not have people with technical or scientific knowledge on staff. Also, these organizations review applications and reports from a variety of scientific fields. Since the technical language differs from one field to the next (e.g. social scientists communicate differently than biologists, engineers, geologists or other physical scientists), the most efficient way to communicate is using plain language.
It takes a significant amount of time for a community organization to consider research applications, and when applications are full of scientific jargon or not easy to understand, it takes longer and can be frustrating. Community reviewers expect to understand documents that are presented to them, and it is important to realize that their understanding is critical to a community’s decision-making process. Community reviewers are often required to summarize your research agenda for their members, and there is a risk of losing important information if it is not presented in a way that is meaningful for them. Communications that are unclear may undermine a community’s confidence in you and may even lead to mistrust. This is not a good start for developing a positive working relationship.
Communicating effectively is equally important for community presentations. There is nothing more frustrating for members of the audience than not understanding what is being said. It is also frustrating for the presenter to see that the audience has tuned out, or to have their presentation interrupted by questions that don’t seem relevant.
Understanding Your Audience
Plain language means designing communications to meet the needs of your audience. Keep in mind that you may need to communicate with more than one audience.
As you start planning your communications, consider the following questions:
- Who will be reading this (or attending my presentation)?
- What information do they need/want?
- Will they be able to share the information with other members of their community?
- What is their background knowledge or familiarity with your topic?
- What is their first language? Education level? Reading ability?
- Are they more fluent in their Aboriginal language than in English?
- What is their previous experience with researchers?
What Does Plain Language Look Like?
To provide an example of effective community communications, we have rewritten a scientific abstract in a format that will be received more favourably by a broader audience. This example illustrates that the use of plain language does not require an oversimplification of your research or a loss of key findings. To read the sample please see A Plain Language Example.
Before You Submit That...
Before finalizing your communications, you should review them to ensure that they have met the mark.
With support from the Government of the Northwest Territories Department of Education, Culture and Employment, the NWT Literacy Council has developed a Plain Language Audit Tool (see the resources section for website) to help you review your work. It guides you through your communications to ensure that they are clear, well-organized and will be relevant to your audience.
Also, be sure to contact the licensing office to ensure your applications and research summaries conform to their criteria for format and plain language.
Resources for Plain Language
There are a tremendous number of resources available to help you communicate more effectively with your community reviewers. The following websites should provide you with everything you need to develop your plain language communications.
Government of the Northwest Territories Resources
Plain Language: A Handbook for Writers in the U.S. Federal Government
A comprehensive guide on plain writing – including the pitfalls of not writing in plain language.
A US federal website with excellent resources, including guides, samples and resources.
The Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN)
PLAIN is a volunteer non-profit organization of plain language advocates, professionals, and organizations committed to plain language. Their website includes numerous resources and samples.
Cheryl Stephens Resources
Cheryl Stephens is an author and consultant who provides access to many of her resources on the web.
Garbl's Writing Centre
Contains some great references, guides and links.
For Community Organizations