Plain Language

2022 Federal Plain Language Summit

Wednesday, August 24, 2022 10:30 AM – 3:45 PM ET

Hosted by Digital.gov and the Plain Language Community of Practice

On August 24, 2022, the Plain Language Community of Practice (CoP) will bring together federal employees to highlight plain language successes in many federal agencies at all stages of the communications journey. Speakers address debunking myths, meeting varying audience’s needs, managing the review process and stakeholders, and supporting plain language editors.

The Summit will begin at 10:30 am, ET, and conclude at 3:45 pm, ET. There will be one 15-minute break at 12:15 pm, ET, and one 10-minute break at 2:00 pm, ET.

2022 Plain Language Agenda

Expand each section to download presentation slides and view available videos.

10:30 am - 10:40 am, ET
Opening Remarks: Plain Language CoP Co-Chairs Katherine Spivey and Katina Stapleton


10:40 am - 11:15 am, ET
Debunking the Oversimplification Myth: Making the Case for Plain Language in Health Communications

View the slides (PowerPoint, 2.18 MB, 19 pages)

This session will help participants make the case for using plain language to agency leadership. So often, we work with subject matter experts and others in government who cling to using insider jargon, awkward constructions, and just too many words. There’s a fear that plain language principles will oversimplify the content and minimize the importance of the work. How can public affairs professionals in the government change this attitude? How can we convince colleagues and leaders that products written in plain language are more effective, more meaningful, and more accessible to a wide range of audiences?

There are no easy answers, and there is plenty of resistance. But there are ways to make progress. The presenters will debunk the plain language myths and offer approaches that have worked for us. We will use evidence, examples, and personal experience from our work as a Public Affairs Team. The first part of the session will focus on implementing plain language in written material including press releases and email blasts. The next part of the session will focus on plain language in writing for the web, and how to build credibility with your leadership and subject matter experts so that you can transform website navigation and content toward users’ needs.

In this session you will hear from the following speakers:

  • Shuly Babitz — Health Communications Strategist, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
  • Katy Karnell — Communications Team Lead, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)

11:15 am - 11:45 am, ET
A Happy Compromise: Applying People-First Standards with Plain Language in Mind

View the slides (PowerPoint, 23.3 MB, 24 pages)

People-first language (PFL) is more commonly known as person-first language and is widely used in the medical community. Under this framework, people are asked not to use words that define a person by their disability or medical condition—and instead, use words that describe them as a person first, and then by their disability or condition second. For example, we would refer to them as “a person with diabetes” instead of “a diabetic.”

The presentation will show how my agency has been able to marry people-first language and plain language principles to develop more sensitive, humane communications that are respectful of the people directly affected by these words in various ways.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Donna Ledbetter — Writer/Editor, National Institute of Corrections (NIC)

11:45 am - 12:15 pm, ET
Designing Digital Products for Adults With Low Literacy

View the slides (PowerPoint, 3.72 MB, 16 pages)

Over 50% of U.S. adults score below an international benchmark for literacy, with roughly 20% scoring at the very lowest levels. These adults span all demographics and are a part of your audience. What can we do as user experience professionals to support digital inclusion of adults with low reading literacy levels? This session provides a high-level overview of best practices in design standards, plain language, content strategy, and usability testing.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Sheila Walsh — Public Affairs Specialist, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

12:30 pm - 1:00 pm, ET
Help Them See the Light: Strategies for Training Feds to Use Plain Writing

The presentation highlights how we use examples of our agency’s own internal memos, emails, and other communication pieces as a powerful plain writing training strategy. Showing lots of “before-and-after” examples of the kinds of pieces we see every day around the agency helps federal employees understand that plain writing isn’t about oversimplifying for a low-literacy public – it’s a research-based science that helps EVERYONE get better results.

Participants will learn how we use real examples of communication pieces from around our agency to help federal employees see why plain writing is relevant to their work, even if they don’t ever write for the public. We’ll share how we rewrite and redesign these pieces in a non-threatening, relatable way that helps feds recognize how their current communication approaches (“the way we’ve always done it”) might be sabotaging their results.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Heather K. Holland — Communications & Usability Specialist, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)

1:00 pm - 1:30 pm, ET
Jargon Madness: A Plain Language Exercise

View the slides (PowerPoint, 1.54 MB, 34 pages)

This session will walk through how to create and run a Jargon Madness event as a plain language exercise. Jargon Madness is a tournament-style bracket modeled after the annual college basketball event except in this version, jargon battles for the title of “Most confusing” based on votes.

Attendees will learn about:

  • Different ways to run tournament brackets;
  • How to build education into tournament brackets;
  • How to manage situations where colleagues (or a boss!) responds defensively; and
  • Challenges that we’ve experienced.

An activity like this complements formal plain language training programs. It can be a way to get a wider audience to think about their jargon usage—and, therefore, thinking about plain language throughout their work. It’s also pretty fun. Our champions from the last two years are “bleeding edge” and “boil the ocean.”

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Laura Rabuck — Research Health Science Specialist / Lead Content Strategist, United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)

1:30 pm - 2:00 pm, ET
Instruction on Setting up Context for Technical Details: Addition to an Agency’s PL Training

View the slides (PowerPoint, 1.42 MB, 5 pages)

A major point of contention that can occur between writers and editors presenting technical information for general readership is what can be seen as oversimplifying language. If we replace technical phrasing with commonly understood phrasing, we risk losing nuance; if we retain technical, specialized phrasing, we risk losing readers.

In plain writing training I have developed for my agency, a federal science agency, I provide a third alternative by adding instruction on creating introductory frameworks in which readers can place technical details and thereby understand technical phrasing. Providing frameworks can enable writers and editors to retain technical language and make it understandable for readers.

The instruction on building frameworks introduces two principles. The first is for the writer to indicate in introductory sections the significance of the subject for the reader.

Typical expressions of exigence include a change in a situation, the discovery of new data, a new way of looking at existing data, conflicting interpretations of data. When readers know why the subject is significant and what the text is intended to accomplish, they can absorb technical details and language more easily.

The second concept underpinning the training on framing is the “known-new contract.” Known-new prescribes placing known information before new information and general information before details—the idea sounds obvious, but it is shocking how often writers fail to write this way. “Known” can refer to already familiar information or to information introduced in a text on which newer information builds. The principle is usually applied to structuring individual sentences, but I apply it more broadly to the overall structure of a text.

In my presentation, I will discuss the training and provide before-and-after examples of writing that lacked frames, and the edited versions in which frames were set up. Participants will be introduced to the ideas of exigence and the known-new contract, and how to apply these ideas in writing and training.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Stanley Dambroski — Writer/Editor, National Science Foundation (NSF)

2:10 pm - 2:30 pm, ET
Managing Stakeholder Feedback: Lessons from Experience

View the slides (PowerPoint, 16.7 MB, 19 pages)

Do you know how to request and receive feedback on your plain language materials? Getting input from stakeholders can lead to a clearer, more accurate product. In this presentation, you’ll learn the types of stakeholders you might ask to review your materials, what to include in your request, and why it’s critical to set expectations early. You’ll also find out how to juggle suggestions from multiple reviewers and what to do if their edits are complex or full of jargon. These tips will set you up for success when working with stakeholders from inside and outside your agency.

Getting feedback on your professional writing has many benefits: It validates the accuracy of the information, it can improve the clarity and focus of the text, and it gives your materials more credibility. But asking stakeholders to review and make suggestions on a document can be tricky. If you aren’t clear about your needs and expectations up front, you may not get the kind of feedback you’re looking for. And not everyone is an expert in plain language — so even if a reviewer’s edits are useful, you may have to “translate” them for the information to be understandable to your audience.

In this presentation, participants will learn:

  • The two main types of stakeholders you might ask to review your materials, and how to approach each type;
  • The elements to include in your request to get helpful and actionable suggestions;
  • Why it’s important to set expectations early regarding the editorial process and deadlines;
  • What to do if a reviewer suggests edits that are complex or full of jargon, and how to handle it if you disagree with a particular edit;
  • Suggestions for keeping feedback from multiple reviewers straight; and
  • How to be a good reviewer yourself.

By the end of the talk, participants will have a toolbox of practical suggestions for approaching stakeholders and managing their feedback. The talk will also include examples from the presenter’s personal experience working with hundreds of reviewers on plain language materials. The presentation will be followed by Q&As from the audience.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Stephanie M. Morrison, MPH — Health and science writer/editor, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

2:30 pm - 3:00 pm , ET
Designing for People with Cognitive Disabilities (and Everyone Else)

View the slides (PowerPoint, 16.1 MB, 37 pages)

The art of designing and creating content to support people with cognitive disabilities lives in the space between usability and accessibility. This presentation will discuss design patterns and approaches to support people with disabilities relating to attention, executive function, language, learning, and memory. These recommendations are not accessibility standards; they are recommended best practices that improve the user experience for everyone.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Dr. Rachael Bradley Montgomery — Digital Accessibility Architect, Library of Congress (LOC)

3:00 pm - 3:30 pm , ET
Recognizing Systemic Challenges for the Design Team of One

View the slides (PowerPoint, 547KB, 48 pages)

Many designers are often alone on projects. Even in large organizations, they may feel isolated as they work with their product team. When things don’t go smoothly, designers may shoulder the blame. In this talk, listeners will come away with a design framework to recognize when they need to focus on the system they’re in, instead of their performance.

In this session you will hear from the following speaker:

  • Amanda Damewood — Acting Director of User Experience, Department of Homeland Security (DHS)

3:30 pm - 3:45 pm, ET
Closing Remarks

Speakers

  • Shuly Babitz — Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
  • Katy Karnell — Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
  • Donna Ledbetter — National Institute of Corrections (NIC)
  • Sheila Walsh — Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)
  • Heather K. Holland — Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (CMS/HHS)
  • Laura Rabuck — Office of Research and Development of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
  • Stanley Dambroski — U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • Stephanie M. Morrison, MPH — National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
  • Rachael Bradley Montgomery — Library of Congress (LoC)
  • Amanda Damewood — United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)

Moderators

  • Katherine Spivey — U.S. General Services Administration (GSA)
  • Katina Stapleton — U.S. Department of Education (ED)

The Plain Language Action and Information Network (PLAIN) is a group of federal employees from different agencies and specialties who support the use of clear communication in government writing. Join the Community of Practice.