Managing Your Plain Language Career

Wednesday, March 13, 2019 3:00 PM – 4:00 PM ET

Hosted by and the Plain Language

Get the credit you deserve!

The plain language quotation marks logo.

We’ll discuss your formal and informal plain language work (teaching, training, reviewing, or copyediting) and how to best document and publicize it so you can get credit for the work you’re doing.

Questions we’ll address:

  • How do I get credit for the Plain Language work I’m already doing?
  • How should I best promote the Plain Language work I’m doing?
  • What Plain Language opportunities are out there?
  • How to best share your work on LinkedIn, your performance plan, your IDP, and your performance review?

Here’s our panel:

  • Donna Garland, Deputy Associate Administrator for Communication, General Services Administration
  • Megan Miller, plain language writer/editor, Patent and Trademark Office
  • Jonathan Withington, Chief, Plain Language Division, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

Please submit your questions to by Tuesday, March 12 with the subject line: 3/13 Career Advice Meeting.

This event will be held on Zoom. Our team will distribute links to join the event prior to the event date. You can download Zoom Client for Meetings to install the Zoom web browser client beforehand.

Event Transcript

Moderator: Hi, everybody, and welcome to Managing Your Plain Language Career. Today we have a set of panelists who will document their formal and informal plain language work. You can get credit for the work you are doing. We are joined today by Megan Miller, plain language writer-editor with U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and, chief of the Plain Language Division in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Jonathan Withington, and Kathryn Catania, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has agreed to fill in for Donna Garland, deputy associate administrator for communications, General Services Administration. Donna unfortunately could not be here with us today. You’ll be able to use the chat feature below to ask questions to our panelists. I will hand things off to Katherine Spivey.

Katherine: Thanks so much for joining us today. We were very excited that so many people wanted to join us today. Here is a brief introduction for passion about Plain Language and how that plays a part in building a career.

Kat: Hi everyone, I’m Kat Catania, also a cochair from PLAIN. A lot of you know me out there. If you don’t, I have a passion for language and writing effectively, getting clear communication on everybody’s to-do list. I think that one of the major ways you get language credit and what you do if you’re not in a Plain Language role specifically is you share that passion with others. A lot of us are very humble introverted people and we don’t want to really speak up and make a big to-do about things. But you know, if you really, truly love plain language and you want to get credit for it, start talking about it. Get out there and say hey, I would love to do a lunch and learn to talk about Plain Language, is that okay with you? If the boss says no, you try again later on. But what if the boss sees you like Plain Language? He or she may begin to rely on you for plain language work. Volunteer to help edit things. Make suggestions. Don’t wait for them to come to you. I would love to fix this whole section of the website. What do you think? Sure, go ahead.

Katherine: Sure, yeah, go ahead. It’s free labor.

Kat: The thing is don’t be shy about being proud of what makes you excited about coming to work. I know a lot of people have different jobs, but maybe the Plain Language aspect is what gets you up in the morning and makes you more effective. If you’re a nerd about that like I am, make sure people know, and I think that will really help you in your career in general. People want to know that you are the go-to person to get all the Plain Language stuff done, or share Plain Language with others. Will send it over to Katherine here.

Katherine: I just wanted to say thank you for that because I think that gets us where we are, that you are passionate about, you know, if we are not quite married to Plain Language, we are dating pretty seriously, and you know, it’s difficult sometimes to convey that passion and to get respect for it, but I am seeing it more and more. When I first thought about this discussion, I thought what am I interested in about Plain Language? And there were so many lessons that I feel took me very late to figure out, like it was oh yeah! I could put that I did a class on this on LinkedIn. I forgot. I got an award. That went on LinkedIn. What took me a long time to A, ask people to nominate me for awards, and B to publicize that I won. That sort of thing like oh, yeah, these are things that you can do. And also since I have [Indiscernible - audio cutting out] , and I wanted Megan and Jonathan to talk about being in the job market for Plain Language, and I know, Jonathan, you had some details. Maybe you can talk about that.

Jonathan: Sure, thanks. We have a large community of practice for Plain Language at USCIS. Kathryn Catania was responsible for building most of that out over the last five years. The community is basically growing, but it’s also changing. As people leave, as people come and go, we are constantly having to teach people about Plain Language. Plain Language has been somewhat institutionalized within our agency because we have been able to demonstrate value.

Kat: Right.

Jonathan: We’ve been able to include plain language into all of our communication efforts. I don’t know an organization out there that does not appreciate effective communication, so throughout our organization we have other directorates and programs that need writer-editors. Now what I am seeing is from those jobs as they get advertised, they are looking for someone with a Plain Language background. It’s not just in our division, the Plain Language division, which needs Plain Language skills, writers, and editors. We have a detail program within my division to help us build our – Plain Language capabilities and grow our community of practice, I competitively select the detailees based on their resume, experience and potential to be successful. They are trained in Plain Language, given a portfolio, assigned relevant projects, and leave as trained trainers for Plain Language. So if I have a detailee from New York, who returns trained to teach Plain Language and has become a Plain Language practitioner, and when we are doing training in the New York area, there is someone there that we can call upon to conduct training and can look at product and really improve it. I was just talking to a person who was an immigration service officer in Missouri who is also a Plain Language evangelist and trainer, if you will. We get people trained, and they go off to other parts of the agency, but they still work in Plain Language, they still talk Plain Language, and they still try to apply those concepts in all their products.

Katherine: Great, great. That is very inspiring that you are actively building trainers. That, that is typical. Megan, what about Trademarks? Dealing with Plain Language?

Megan: Well, I was actually not looking for a Plain Language job when I got one. I just wanted to be a writer-editor, and I actually got an internship at USPTO and did some writing and editing and that’s kind of how I got a job. I think no matter what kind of writing and editing you do, there’s always an opportunity to incorporate Plain Language and talk about it, and to call attention to the fact that that’s what you are doing and that it’s an important thing.

Katherine: I had a very proud moment a few years ago maybe when Plain Language review was an official piece in the review process. I think it was like number four, but it was officially no blog went past that until I initialed it, and I looked at it for Plain Language. And you know, that really helped. I have a thing today where I was editing Plain Language material on leading-edge technologies, and only after I finished did I think, I wonder who else is sharing this document, you know? So don’t do that. But the person who’s responsible for answering my questions, you know, like why is this here? Can we order this a different way? And he’s like, these are great questions. I really like that you’re bringing them up. And after the initial embarrassment, I really [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ] because it made them think about the material in a different way, and I think that is all we can do. A person that’s not invested in a particular product or a particular thing, as it were, can look at it with fresh eyes and say what is this part, what is that part, how do they work together?

Jonathan: And we have a management directive that mandates all content, external and internal, should be reviewed for Plain Language. It also says if we are unable to review that content before it goes up, it’s contingent upon the content author to make sure it gets reviewed, so having more people speak in Plain Language enables us to do that and gives us more economies. Taught a great lesson.

Katherine: That goes even beyond the Plain Writing Act, you know, for internal, external communications.

Kat: The internal part, a lot of people say we don’t need to worry about this for internal, but a lot of things that are internal end up getting cut and pasted into documents that are external. It really saves time to actually make something that’s internal and write it for a general audience or, you know, your web audience. When you take all those pieces that are going to be for in-house, you might find that parts of that text are getting put on the web or that a memo is posted to the web, and you get questions from people out there that say I don’t really understand your jargon or what it means. It really does save you time to think about Plain Language as an internal aspect of work.

Katherine: In communication, no matter what you think about, so it helps everything.

Kat: I always push Plain Language for emails. Start practicing in your emails. And really, you know, effective communication is needed in emails instead of just a sea of text.

Katherine: And I’ve also found that it is a hard habit to break. It is hard now not to write in Plain Language. I mean I typically start editing, and it does not really matter if it’s an internal or external audience because I have [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ].

I call it a Plain Language haircut. Sometimes you get – we will receive a document, and it’s a bit far down the road to really give it a heavy edit, and I think there is a balance of how much editing you can do on the product based on when the Plain Language person gets involved. We stress heavily, that the Plain Language team needs to be involved from the get-go so that there is no need to do a heavy edit later in the process as the product moves through the production.

Katherine: I think that you have a list of questions, if I am correct.


Kat: I do!

[ Laughter ]

Katherine: So I guess one of the questions that people sent in about this was how do we get agencies to recognize effective communication, and, you know, Megan, do you have any input on how do we get agencies to recognize effective communication or, you know?

Megan: Are we talking about recognizing what it is or recognizing the people who do it?

Katherine: Both.

Megan: I think recognizing, the first step to recognizing people who do it is to recognize the impact that it has, so if your leadership does not understand the point of Plain Language and the fact that it helps your customers and that will help you, then it may not seem important to them to recognize the work that gets done. If they understand that it helps your agencies and it helps your customers and the impact that they can have, I think they will be a lot more willing to recognize the people who are putting in the work for it.

Katherine: I love how you do – how does Trademarks recognize the people who do it or –?

Megan: Oh, I don’t think we have an official way, but I think that we have worked really hard to shift to the culture inside of trademarks. Trademarks did not have a writer-editor, there was no dedicated writer-editor for Trademarks before I arrived two years ago. So writing effectively was just not at all part of the culture, and so I think that a lot of the work that’s been done so far has been to get people to start thinking about it and to get everyone to understand that it is important and slowly, person by person, shifting the culture.

Katherine: Great. That’s a very important point. That is often a difficult culture shift. Now, we do have the Center of Plain Language federal report card. We sort of bring it up every year, and you USCIS) do have an award ceremony as [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ].

Jonathan: Oh, sure. I will talk about it because we just initiated the one [Plain Language writing contest] for the spring. I wanted it to create leading recognition programs, so we’ve been kind of beating the drum throughout the year. In the spring, we have the spring writing challenge, Spring Cleaning Writing Challenge.

Jonathan: It’s a fairly light lift where we take – people submit a product that is currently published, and then an edited version of it, and then we have a group of judges that judge it for clarity, visual presentation, and organization, and that person [winner] is automatically entered into our fall or winter program, which is a little bit more complex. That is the annual Plain Language awards, and it takes submissions in the fall, it’s judged, and then we put on a big recognition ceremony.

Katherine: Cake?

Jonathan: Cake there, all the agency leadership is there, and so we just try to create a buzz about it.


Jonathan: But I also want to mention the community of practice, going out and tapping into the Plain Language advocates that we have serve as judges. Rather than the Plain Language division members, writer-editors being the judges, we allow the informal Plain Language committee to do that. Get as many people involved as we can. Try to create a drumbeat throughout the year. One heavy lift, one light lift.

Katherine: Much easier than two heavy lifts.

But the whole point is to show value of what we are doing, and in our case we are in the customer business. Our customers, they pay money for a service. I recently saw a Plain Language practitioner interviewed who said, “The public has a right to know what they are signing their name to, to understand what they are agreeing to.” Same for us, and so good language, good communication allows us to save money, allows us to save staff resources, and more effectively and efficiently adjudicate our immigration cases.

Katherine: Of what you have more than enough.

Kat: Donna Garland unfortunately cannot make it today, but she did provide her thoughts on these questions which is fantastic, so thank you, Donna. And of course, she said the one thing that she comes across with some people when they see Plain Language, oh, Plain Language, that does not sound very good. Plain. Katherine and I are very familiar with that, you know, the whole negative connotations with Plain Language, which is a myth. People get it in the myth that it is a speedbump to getting something cleared. No one argues when it’s effective communication. Who’s going to argue with that? Everyone wants to have effective communication and see the value of it. It’s saving you time, saving money. Bringing that aspect into it, and then at the same time educating the folks you are working with about what it really is, and you know, showing your before-and-after examples and really seeing a difference., This is a 20-page document versus a beautiful flowchart of everything. When people see it in relation to what they work on, it really resonates when you talk about in more general aspects, some people might not get it. But once it applies to their work in the before-and-after and the value of that, it will really click, and obviously get the training and they really like plain language. It’s really helpful. I think that is a true thing.

Katherine: Yes. Not letting plain writing or plain language, not letting the terminology get in the way, although sometimes I found that I have to actually link people. You know, I don’t just sign my name to this. There’s going to be questions, and I’m going to see the changes, and sometimes that is more of a shock than other times, so. There is that.

Megan: Here’s one other thought on awards and recognition. We have a handful of writing awards within Trademarks now that criteria has nothing at all to do with plain language. I don’t really know a lot about the criteria is because I think it should consider Plain Language, but I don’t know if that is something that other people can relate to, but I think future state I would love to be in a position to be able to suggest that we incorporate some Plain Language requirements in the writing awards.

If you find that the criteria, maybe you can suggest changes to bring Plain Language into it.


You know. [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]. Not yet. Maybe that’s a better way of thinking about it. Not yet, we don’t have one yet. But how do you – when you are with detailees, you said you are getting them trained, presumably to be involved with a lot of material and review and edit. How do you sort of mark their progress? Obviously you don’t do – I’m assuming you don’t do things like number of documents reviewed.

Jonathan: No, we don’t look at it that way. The detail is that we have, one, they apply for the jobs so they had some sort of efficacy, and we thought they would be successful, and I assigned them each a portfolio, also assigned to each one of the senior writer-editors as their mentor – to do second-line report before it goes out to the clients, and they have been given projects.

Katherine: Okay.

Jonathan: In fact, this great guy from New York right now who’s running my spring process, he’s doing a fantastic job. I have another one that comes from an education background and offered that perspective that we did not necessarily have on our team, and really just giving us fresh eyes on a number of products, so that is how we are managing them, but they have a portfolio, and they make it one as well. The best fit there.

Katherine: I was wondering, Megan, from a writer-editor perspective, how do you put your Plain Language projects or skills in your performance measures? Is that part of your performance measures, part of your annual review? I mean the question I’m trying to get to is what do you put into your annual review? Is it something like I did, I went to three Plain Language trainings of this , or things like that?

Megan: Sure, well I very diligently track everything I do. I make sure I update a running Word document of endless bullets that I update every week or two.

Katherine: Absolutely.

Megan: And every once in a while, I kind of go back in and categorize things and see where I spent my time, and visualize the bigger projects, and then from there if possible I try to kind of look for the impact of especially the bigger projects. So if I’ve spent a lot of time on a specific webpage, look you know, what is in the feedback on that webpage.

Katherine: Right.

Megan: How many more people have clicked “helpful,” how many less people have clicked that it’s “not helpful,” and if there’s any call center data that I can tie that to, so any metric or data to show the impact of the work that I have done.

Katherine: That is fantastic because I normally am completely surprised every year by the time by the annual performance review, and I have to go back to my calendar and try to figure from that, so I’m going to take your idea into a Word document. I think that’s a lot better. So there’s a couple of different things. There’s like, you know, the listing of the meetings or trainings that you’ve attended, your project that you have worked on, any webinars, if you volunteered for like blog posts like Federal Communicators Network has that and GovLoop has rolling requests for publishers , and you know, how do you – how do you build your reputation with that, is that you let people know what you’ve been doing, and you know, it was a big surprise for some of my coworkers a couple years ago when I was doing the volunteering. They wanted like six posts over three months or so, and it was an interesting way to try out, to list on my LinkedIn profile, which is also good to update constantly and not leave it till the end of the year. I am just saying that.

Jonathan: I think a lot of writer-editors, I think they can do much more, so as a supervisor, I look for opportunities. I look for professional development opportunities for them to speak on behalf of the organization or training or two, with new initiatives or to take on a short-term or long-term project, whether it is an editing and writing projects, or it is an awards project.

Katherine: Right.

Jonathan: But get them out in front, get them, allow them to develop, and allow them to grow, and then they can take credit for that on their resume, LinkedIn, performance appraisal, that sort of thing.

Kat: One of our other questions was about, you know, conferences. Some people, and agencies, they’re not going to web conferences right now. Even if there are web conferences, the only way to join in is an event that’s all across the country related to writing or, you know, the web, all sort of different Plain Language that you can get some really great volunteering out there and practice public speaking and share your passion for plain language, and obviously there are Plain International and Clarity International conferences, and of course we have the Center of Plain Language workshops, and definitely not playing here, and we have our PLAIN summit. We had our inaugural one last year, and we will hopefully have one this year, so I will not say when.

[ Laughter ]

Kat: There are many opportunities to volunteer. You can say I would love to help out with that or be a moderator on a panel. You don’t actually have to speak and give a presentation, but my suggestion is going into conferences where they needed help and moderators, and I thought I’ll be a moderator. I had no idea what I was doing, then I came up on the stage, I had cue cards, and it was a great way to network and meet others in the Plain Language community. Also, you can volunteer to judge the federal Plain Language awards. It usually happens around wintertime when they call for judges, and, you know, just look for emails from them. That kind of stuff. So I think that’s an interesting way to get involved as well.

Katherine: And also I don’t know the background on this, but the Open Opportunity Network that comes up periodically and they are almost always – I mean I have not seen any Plain Language things, but there is always details, short-term projects, slightly longer-term projects, things. That is one thing. Lauren, I see that we have some questions coming in, but I cannot see what they are.

Lauren: Yeah, we have a lot. What if I have to get people like that to at least you Plain Language or get them on board?

Kat: Well, you can talk about the article you sent around and maybe target. [ Laughter ]

Katherine: Well, what I have found is, number one, if you go [Symmetrix] as Megan suggested, if you can use metrics and find that our people switching on that particular acronym for that particular word, maybe you can get an idea of how much people understand it, but it’s also really fun, and I say fun in a sarcastic sense of not fun at all, but to find out if acronyms or jargon have two different meanings. I’m still fighting the fight of [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ], which people insist is buying stuff, but [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]. Sometimes you just have to give it to some target audience members and get their feedback, like what is this? I don’t know what this is, you know? So you know, sometimes they have to hear it from someone else, and you can go do your little I told you dance all by yourself in a separate room, not in front of them. But sometimes, they just need to listen to someone else. Do you have other ideas?

Megan: I don’t have any [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]. I try to do an outside focus group with your actual customers, how they are responding to the words, like do they understand it? And you’re going to be able to see that and talk to them and ask them questions about it, but if they are not and they are confused and you have a lot of metrics that back up that people are confused about the web content or how to fill out forms, you can pretty much trace it back to the language in it depending on what comments you get, so metrics are your friends. I know you don’t always have access to them, but getting an outside community to look at it can help.

Jonathan: I think legal jargon is something that we all have to address on any given day, and what I have found is that having great relationships with the General Counsel is important. They understand what you are trying to do with Plain Language to improve communication so those who received it [the information] can find it, understand it and use it. And then come to an agreement about what is legally sufficient. Find a negotiating point, realize how far you can go. Perhaps they need to use the legal term, but there is a point when you can add – and what that means is, describing a little bit further in layman’s terms will help, and I think that comes with this working relationship with the attorneys on staff.

Katherine: Yeah.

Megan: I think that we have a few lawyers that we won over pretty early at USPTO and we convinced them that Plain Language is great.

[ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]

Megan: So we have a couple of attorneys who are really – are fierce advocates, and so sometimes when we have resistance with a new person that we have not really worked with, it’s really helpful

Katherine: Even the lawyer!

Megan: Yes, we also have a slide in our plain language training that talks about jargon, and we pull out an example from – I think it originally came from one of our webpages, and it’s just totally full of jargon, and whenever we got to that, any jargon, we blacked it out, and so it’s just a “blank and a blank and also blank will blank,” and so if you pull that out and try to ask people, the audience, can you guess what it means? No one has any idea what it’s talking about. Sometimes that gets the point across. So I don’t know. You know, if that is not an option, maybe you can do a non-training version of that.

Katherine: I was thinking I’m not recommending this at all, but I did want to ask someone you want this filled with jargon, or do you want people to read it and do what you want?

Kat: Right.

Katherine: You know? I could not be any more plain, and I think at that point they realized part of the barriers they were setting up, but you know, that’s obviously going to be a constant challenge with Plain Language.

Jonathan: If media relations start receiving phone calls from reporters who don’t understand the information we just put out, that’s a pretty good indicator.

Kat: Yeah.

Megan: – Of how well we did.

Kat: I know that’s really hard because when you go in alphabet soup land, but as soon as we have a committee, we need to have an acronym for it. No, you don’t. Just spell out the committee, and then the rest of the document, you make the acronym.

Katherine: And also, and this is from someone who’s recognized someone making up an acronym, if you do have to sometimes be the voice of the person not on the team and say you know, I think another government agency has that acronym locked down. If you use this acronym, they will think of the government agency. They will not think about what you just created. They’d been working with it for six months, and it never dawned on them that they repeated that acronym, so you know, sometimes – now, I know that something that I always hear is you really don’t understand our business, and sometimes that is true, but sometimes it’s – you know, I don’t care what your business is. You don’t need a 32-line paragraph, you know? Sometimes, you know? Passion!

Kat: Lauren, we have another question.

Lauren: We got some questions about what are some good resources for people who are inside and outside of government who want to learn more about Plain Language.

Katherine: is a good place to start. We also have federal resources. We have a number of links and videos and whatnot. Something to come in the next month or so, and we have a list of books that our members liked, so I am hoping that we can – and I will get that up on [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ].

Kat: I always love any books by Joe Kimble.

Writing for Dollars, Writing to Please. There you go. Ginny Reddish’s book Letting Go of the Words that’s great for web content. There are some great resources. You know, check out Center of Plain Language, check out websites. They have a lot of good stuff there. Bryan Garner, editor in chief of Black’s Law dictionary has some excellent books on plain language

Katherine: Alan Alda, on science communications. He’s got a couple of books and the Clear and Vivid podcast.

Kat: I’m sure we are forgetting something very important. There are so many, so definitely check out Plus, we have a lot of resources up there, and of course you can find others.

Katherine: Share the wealth. Then we can add them to our list.

Lauren: So John asked if there any other plan of online form that able to run questions through, and of course we know about COPs, but anything for nongovernment folks to use?

Katherine: Nongovernment folks are welcome to join PLAIN. They are going to hear a lot about, so here’s a government problem that we have, but we have a lot of local and city people joining PLAIN because there is not another resource for them, and we are happy to have them post questions and have them participate.

Kat: With regulations and notices, I think not many people take an opportunity to look at those and actually comment on the clarity of those regulations, so it’s an opportunity for you to go in and make as many comments as you want about how it is confusing and does not really help you understand how to comply with it, and that will go to OMB. It will help because reg writers will start seeing those comments, and you will directly enforce them and to using Plain Language, so they will have to use it when drafting regulations.

Katherine: And it’s better than bingeing on Netflix.

Kat: And you learn a lot. You learn so much than on Netflix.

Lauren: We have a question from somebody who works in a very public scientific organization, and scientists are highly educated. How do I get them talking details in writing and Plain Language?

Well, there is [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ] again, Alan Alda. He had a second career as teaching science communications, and I am thinking is internally from his own book. He loves science, but he was talking to scientists, and he ended up having to tell them you are not getting money from Congress because they don’t know what you do. And you know, those things have to be in plain language for them to get money, that is what they have to do. And there was a large study that came out a couple years ago.

Kat: I don’t remember where it was from, so I apologize, but science papers written by other scientists are completely not understandable by other scientists. So unless you are in the field working directly on that topic, you will not understand the paper that the other scientist wrote, and it is because of the perpetuation of the horrible, scientific, put all the words you can fit, the biggest word you can fit into the sentence or paragraph way of writing. They really have a completely different language between the different scientific fields, so the science community and academia are trying to get scientists to work together to have some kind of Plain Language summaries upfront so that the communities can directly get together because a lot of times you are missing out on a breakthrough study because you pass it over because you just don’t get it. You can’t read the jargon, you can’t get through all the dense content, so if it’s a really serious problem in the science world, and especially if you’re trying to cure cancer. I mean it’s not a joke.

Katherine: There’s also the National Association of Science Writers who might be able to put some things forward to that. And also of course, Plain Language makes translation easier, so if you are working with scientists with other countries, you know, the plainer your language is, the more people will know.

Lauren: I see a few people asking about how to comment on the Federal –

[ Laughter ]

Kat: Register on the website, and I wish Miriam was here because she would talk about it. But all the rules and regulations are all posted there, and they are all links, and you can click on them, and there is usually a please comment section, and they will bring you this area where you can fill out a comment, and you automatically just upload it to OMB, and it’s kind of a generic example. But it is fairly straightforward when you go to the website.

Katherine: Interesting. Who would’ve thought that so many people are eager not to watch Netflix?

[ Laughter ]

Kat: So we often talk about MASH.

Katherine: Fair enough.

Katherine: Well, his thing is [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ], SUNY, I think? University of New York, yes. So he’s got some books about communication, and they are, A, funny because he’s a comedian, but B, also they are true as well, so that helps.

Kat: He had that science show for a while when he was try to actually deal with the scientists. I got to see him and he was fantastic. The scientists dispute themselves when they are speaking, and they think they are making perfect sense. So he even spoke of his own operation where he has this little thing that connects to his phone to move to his mouth, and it was operated, but they do not think it was anything big, but that he could not smile after that. So he was on set the other day, and the director said, you’re grimacing now. And he said, no, I’m smiling! He was not actually smiling, so it was all explained to him in complete medical jargon, so he never thought there would be an issue where he might have this nerve issue for it would take a couple months for his nerve to correct itself. Luckily, he can smile now, but that is just a minor thing, but there is so many bigger issues and doctors and patients and communications.

Katherine: So there is a lot in health literacy, which is sort of making plain language kind of explode because that is where it is life-and-death. It is not just investigations or acquisitions or whatever, you know, mission, agency. People died because they don’t understand this prescription instructions or eat or don’t eat before operations, or, you know, things like that. So we are finding as usual a lot of plain linkage, the whole issue of clear communications intersects not only with things like customer service, customer experience, user experience. Those are just things that work in fields like health literacy and, you know, things like that. Sorry. I run out of words. It’s the afternoon. I have no words left.

Kat: There’s literacy and socioeconomic things with how doctors talk about complications, and definitely you were talking about that a great deal, and it was fascinating to see how doctors in inner cities are bringing in all these pilots to try to communicate easier with folks in different communities, so they actually do follow their prescriptions, that kind of thing.

Katherine: You should not have to have a doctorate in your condition to understand what the doctor is prescribing you.

Kat: I think you mentioned the PhDs she has. Having a PhD is awesome, but having a PhD does not mean that it has to be complicated. There are great books on this that I have. Folks could, you know, have law degrees, research degrees, and like you and me, they are busy, normal people and they are juggling a lot of things in their life. Nobody wants to read the 40-page paper that is all fine print. You want clear, easy to understand, actionable content.

Katherine: Part of it is sort of like do you want me to spend all of my energy, you know, my mental energy, but prelunch energy, all of that reading your document, or do you want me to do what the document says? You know, where do you want my focus? Do you want my focus on actions, or do you want all of my blood sugar consumed looking and trying to understand what you are saying? So, I mean, that is another way of [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]. I will look at your question again. Are we on fast speech ]? Talking about other conferences, gosh. Kat mentioned this the other plain language conferences. Well, there’s going to be ours, the PLAIN conference.

Kat: Conferences are kind of like networking. If you have friends that are in other areas of work, they probably have a society where they are going to have a conference, and you never know, if they have [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ]. The lifetime you will find that yes, I know the National Government Web Communicators grew. I went and spoke to them early in my career and it was cool. Can you get a hold of those people? I did not know they existed, but I just met them through a friend, so you know, ask around.

Katherine: I did that last year. There is a National Association of Government Web Professionals (NAGW), and I spoke in Pittsburgh, that was fun. And also, there is often writing groups in cities and places that may not be calling themselves Plain Language, but you know, I would look at business communicators, corporate communicators, maybe even strategic communications groups if you have those. I’m not 100% sure Plain Language is really what you want to take to writing courses, like your fiction novel or your fantasy, you know, different, different kind of thing.

Kat: They might pass it back and forth.

Katherine: They might, they might. You can never quite tell with this. But it is interesting, you know, exploring those. So there’s a lot more going in a group than we thought. Let’s see. And research. We had a question about research about studies done using print documents, and I’m interested in working on larger studies to make sure we have data. Does that job exist? Well, I’m not sure that in the government there is – and I can be wrong about this. But specialty jobs dedicated to resources for plain language?

Jonathan: We have — within the Plain Language Division, we have the Spanish translation team. They too are involved with Plain Language, and they have a Spanish website as well, so we recently finished a focus group on the Spanish website. That will be briefed out next week. We worked with a vendor with that. It was with an outside contract. But our staff worked on the questions. There was an outside contractor that worked on it. They looked at user experience and looked at the information, was it worthwhile, understandable, and anyway it was a great effort.

Kat: Yeah, and Donna’s comments were [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ] and addressing health concerns, so I would see probably more in that area, and that could actually be Health and Human Services (HHS) and CA and Maximus, yeah! Let me write that down so I can respond to the person who sent this, but yeah. And sometimes, user experience, customer experience groups are also interested in Plain Language in sort of the research and the talking at conferences part.

[ Indiscernible ]

Katherine: Megan, you talked very neatly about talking about [ Indiscernible - audio cutting out ], but that is something that you do on your team or your team does. It also might be useful – I mean the research element is looking at the medical and health, public health, but maybe even states and counties, if not cities, so it may not be a federal thing quite so much, but I know we’ve had a bunch of visitors. We met with the people from Oregon that time. The Oregon public health system, and they wanted to know how to set up a Plain Language program to get the people trained, so I think, I think a big focus on the research would be – and also medical, including administrators with that. So are there any last-minute questions? I know that we have about 10 more minutes. Wow, it has just flown by! These are just really good questions. So …

Katherine: I guess one of the questions I have is sort of something that we have noticed over the last couple of years, is that there is not necessarily a career path for Plain Language. And when we have the chief of the Plain Language division, and we have writer-editor, and I cover a couple of things, and –

Kat: I think Donna actually summed it up nicely in her notes. " A career is rarely a straight line. Some of my best memories and most valuable lessons are from unplanned stops inside a track since. A career is a life point that is made up of a series of job. No single job could be considered a career, and many jobs make up a full picture of a career. I found that it can be scary, and those are the ones that are most challenging and most interesting. I think those are all very true, and there is really no Plain Language career, but it is Plain Language being important to your career, and you put it in all the things that you do no matter where you are, like you bring it with you wherever you end up in your career. It can apply to everything, so I think that is a great aspect of Plain Language , and if you are passionate about it, you can share that passion and awareness of Plain Language in your field or wherever you go, if you change fields or offices or organizations, so think of it that way. And you know, it is what we make of it too. I ended up having a really great luck of being in some place that values Plain Language, I was able to make a Plain Language division, and I’m so glad now that Jonathan has that job.

And I did not come from a Plain Language background.


Kat: Jonathan came some journalism. I came from regulations, so it’s interesting the fact that you can be from anywhere and fall into a job that is Plain Language related, and if you find yourself and you want to make things better, put that on your list to do and start doing it. The only one stopping you is you. That is my motivational speech.

Katherine: And sometimes your boss.

Kat: Sometimes your boss.

Katherine: More often.

Katherine: [ Indiscernible - to low volume ]. Well, it’s really helpful just to have a brownbag session where you talk about plain language, and then maybe you can add a long office hours. There have been times when it has just been me in the conference and with Adobe Connect open, but you know, no one wanted to take me up on it. You look like you had something to say.

Megan: No.

Katherine: Fair enough, fair enough. I think it’s helpful also being able to go back, and something you said earlier I believe is it’s one thing to talk about the technique and another to talk about Plain Language in the abstract. Because were always going to argue no, no, I want an effective communications. No one can actually say that because it is hard also to argue with the technique, like short sentences and paragraphs, wah, wah, wah, one. It’s when you start doing the before and after, that I think it really gets home, because sometimes, you know, it just changes. Sometimes it is just breaking up a very large paragraph into shorter ones. Sometime it is adding a bulleted list. I believe that my blog review superpower is adding headers. You know, those are not complicated things, but you know, to be able to say this or that? It’s like playing the eye doctor, is this better or that?

Jonathan: We recently had a document come to us. It’s a legal document, and it was a request for frequently asked questions, a laundry list maybe. I don’t know. 15 or 20 questions, and so one of our senior writer-editors took that and said okay, I can edit this for you, and he did, or we can do it this way, and we recommend this course of action, which was turn it into – the request was [ Indiscernible - low volume ]. So he built out a page with a lot of headers and a lot of white space and very clean, organized, and crisp, and the General Counsel and the DOJ were like hey! That looks great! That’s exactly what we need to do. But we gave them some options. We also recommend this way because, and then we justified it, and they were all on board, and it did not change any of the legal conversation that I’ll have.

Yup, sometimes that – sometimes, they have to see something better before they can say oh, yeah, please, and one of the things – also, this gets back to your point, Megan, with analytics. We’ve started using accordion menus on [ Indiscernible - low volume ], and the beauty of those is you can find out what frequently asked questions people are clicking on, how many times, and so we have looked at some and said okay, we are reordering these in order of the ones that people run the most frequently, and we are actually doing that, and my favorite? Nobody is clicking on these at all.

[ Laughter ]

Katherine: Nobody cares about this, so can we take them off, you know? You never know. But I have found that mostly, people respond with appreciation and delight because they did not know it could look as good as it could be, and so that – I think part of this is sometimes, you have to tell people know, like now, I can look at your stuff by tomorrow morning, you know. That is just a fact, or, you know, I worked with you last time, and I cannot work on your material – perhaps more gracefully phrased – but there may be some people, and you may have other projects on your plate. I always think of editing for Plain Language as an opportunity to show something off better, you know? I feel like sometimes we get lumps of rock, and what we turn it into is at least a semiprecious stone. You know, we put it in a tumbler. Go with me with the metaphor here. And that leaves better than it was before. Now that being said, I think things can always be improved, but at some point you just have to say stop, so you don’t need to be an alternate universe where everybody has infinite time. Do we have one more question, or are we closing?

Lauren: We have a minute.

Katherine: Wow.

Katherine: Thank you so much to everybody who chimed in today, and I hope you got a lot out of this. If you have further questions, send them along. We will answer them. I want to thank you guys so much for being so brave and talking about plain language.

Kat: [ Laughter ] My pleasure.

Megan: Really appreciate it.

Katherine: Really enjoyed everyone’s stories about this. And just a note, what we are going to do is we will write up the material that we have. We have a team of notetakers, thanking you guys too, and we will make this into some sort of content on, and we will add the video and stuff and post it on YouTube, so are there any last-minute, or are they just responding thank you?


Katherine: Fair enough. Thank you so much. Everyone, have a great day.

Kat: Bye!

[Event concluded]

In this talk

Originally posted by Donna Garland on Mar 13, 2019


Originally posted by Jonathan Withington on Mar 13, 2019


Originally posted by Katherine Spivey on Mar 13, 2019

GSA | Washington D.C.

Originally posted by Megan Miller on Mar 13, 2019