I recently agreed to speak to a local MeetUp group on the topic “Plain Language is a right.” MeetUp is an online organizer of local meetings for people with similar interests.
I’ve been promoting plain language and the rights of readers for almost 25 years—beginning with a stint in continuing legal education where I designed a plain-language course for lawyers. In preparing for the talk, though, I caught myself reverting to the lawyer-like mode of presentation that I had learned long ago to reject. I thought, what am I doing?
Here’s a little history and an explanation.
Years ago, I produced scripts for audio recordings made by a public legal-information service. I sometimes did the research when preparing the scripts, but public-service-minded lawyers often provided research memos.
Most of the lawyers would write something that read like an introductory law-school course: The small-claims court was created in ____, its jurisdiction is ____, there are ____ judges on the court, the important rules of the court are ____, a person can start a claim by ____, the relevant statute of limitations is ____, and so forth.
Scripts in that style would bore the average person. You see, the recordings could be no more than 7 minutes long because testing had shown us that listeners tended to hang up the phone after 7 minutes.
Because plain language focuses on the needs of the user, I took a different tack when creating my scripts. I learned to create an effective public-service script by starting with an investigation of the target users. So, for example, I would call or visit the court and ask the counter staff, “What are the six most common questions that the public asks you.” Then, I could base the script on the answers to those questions. This method turned out to be effective.
But back to what I did to prepare my talk before the MeetUp group.
I had taken two courses on international law—one as an undergraduate and another in law school—and more than one on human rights. So I felt that, with a little research to update my knowledge, I had good footing to talk about a right to plain language in customary international law.
So I began preparing my remarks by outlining the relationships between rights at common law, in international law, and by national legislation. Then I started delving into the enshrined rights and the implicit rights—and so on—until I thought that I could express what it means to say that Plain Language is a right. But after going through this exercise, my daily reading interrupted my unconscious lawyer-like approach to preparation.
You see, I have two grandsons and I don’t want to get in trouble with their parents so I follow some sources of online advice about how to talk to children about sensitive topics like sex. One lesson was to answer only the questions they asked, given the child’s knowledge or context for the question. On the topic of sex, for example, what a person shouldn’t do is draw an elaborate, detailed map of the entire process and its effects.
This basic approach applies equally to adult education: the teacher must respect the adult’s life experience and existing knowledge.
So I changed my approach. When the meeting began, I asked the participants what meaning they drew from the statement “Plain Language is a right,” and what questions they had about it. Getting that out at the beginning of the meeting both respected their existing knowledge and informed their specific questions, which I answered.
I share this experience—and my many years of similar experiences doing plain-language work—with you because one day you, too, will have to prepare for a similar communication challenge. You should focus on the topic from the perspective of the reader or listener. This rule applies whether it’s a client seminar, a public presentation, some marketing event, or, most importantly, a critical legal brief or oral argument that could decide your client’s case.
Don’t waste your time preparing an introductory law-school course on a chosen topic that bludgeons your audience with unnecessary information. Instead, take enough time beforehand to understand and appreciate what your audience really needs and wants to know. If you do that, you might just end up informing and persuading, not alienating, them.
Cheryl Stephens is a former lawyer who in 1990 turned her talents towards improving communication between professionals and the public. She has developed plain-language documents for government, legal associations, law firms, insurance companies, the health industry, and social-welfare organizations. Cheryl has written several books, including Plain Language Legal Writing and Plain Language in Plain English, and hosts several LinkedIn groups. Her Plain Language Advocates group has nearly 5,700 international members and is the central forum for online discussions about plain language. Cheryl blogs at PlainLanguageWizardry.com and tweets @CherylStephens. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She would like to hear from you, swearing your allegiance to plain language, because occasionally she is asked to recommend a lawyer who uses plain language.