Why using plain English is about opening up not “dumbing down”

This blog post was written by Dawn Kofie.

“The parliament has a great reputation for being an organisation which promotes values of openness and transparency… it would be great if this ethos was translated and visible via the website.”

(User research participant - web project)

The first version of the new Scottish Parliament website was launched this week. If you’ve had a look, you may notice that the information’s style and tone is different. This is because we’ve used plain English.

What plain English is

The Plain English Campaign defines plain English as, ‘…a message written with the reader in mind and with the right tone of voice that is clear and concise.’

It’s writing in a style and using language that is easy to understand regardless of the topic.

Although this sounds reasonable, in a work setting, sometimes people fear that writing in plain English oversimplifies complex topics and results in information that lacks credibility and gravitas.

But, contrary to popular belief, this way of writing is not about:

  • “dumbing down” and using a patronising, ‘Peter and Jane’ style of communication
  • playing fast and loose with accuracy — it must be right, so the people who use it are not being misled
  • just using short words — if using a technical word is unavoidable, we can explain what it means in everyday language
  • using a chatty tone — a direct, but human, tone is fine
  • accepting sloppy grammar — bad grammar makes it harder for people to understand what they need to know

Why using plain English is important

The average reading age for adults in the UK is 9. And the National Literacy Trust says that 1 in 4 adults in Scotland (26.7% of the population, or 931,000 people), experience challenges because of their lack of literacy skills. But public sector organisations often do not take this into account.

The Parliament is accountable to the people of Scotland and it’s unique. This means we’re the only source of information about what we do, so people don’t have a choice about using what we provide.

Taking part in democratic processes is a fundamental part of being a citizen. But you can’t do it if you do not understand the information about these processes. So it’s our duty to make them as easy to understand as possible.

The Commission on Parliamentary Reform's 2017 report on the Scottish Parliament

In the Commission’s report of its review on the Parliament’s work, it said we need to talk about what we do in simpler terms:

“The language used within the Scottish Parliament can be technical with
acronyms and complex procedures adding to its difficulty…

It has been widely suggested to us that, if the Parliament wants to engage
more broadly with the general public, it needs to ensure the language used in Parliament is closer to that in everyday use.”

For those outside the ‘Holyrood bubble’, terms such as ‘committee inquiries’, ‘evidence taking’ and ‘witnesses’ or the ‘three stage legislative process’ can be meaningless at best and off-putting at worst. Other terms such as ‘session’ have different meanings depending upon your context.”

With the new website, we’re no longer expecting people to do the hard work to understand what we’re communicating. Instead we’ve done it for them.

Two of the ways we’ve done this are by: ensuring our information meets readability standards, and writing for the way people read online. (People don’t read every single word on a webpage, they scan it and pick out individual words and sentences.)

And this is the approach we plan to take with all information that goes on the new website. Unless it’s open to everyone, it should not be created and promoted by Parliament.

What our users say

As well as Scottish Parliament staff and MSPs, we’ve done research with other people who use our website, including:

  • journalists
  • researchers
  • civil servants
  • lobbyists
  • teachers
  • lecturers
  • students
  • tourists
  • young people (under 18)
  • retired people

Their comments show that they find the language we use difficult:

“What is the scrutiny process? This is making assumptions that I know what the scrutiny process actually is.” (Researcher)

But when they read plain English versions of our content they found it:

“Very clear and straightforward.” (Member of the public)

“Simple. Easy to understand.” (Policy Officer)

What we found is backed up by international research

In 2017, an American study, The Public Speaks, Again: An International Study of Legal Communication found that, in every major English-speaking country, people overwhelmingly prefer plain English.

The study also found that the preference for plain English increases with education level. And that 78% of participants had stopped reading legal information before it ended. Their reasons included: “Difficult to process and I was already busy.”

This evidence shows that it does not matter how ‘specialist’ your stakeholders are. Specialists often have heavy workloads, little time, and prefer to read content that’s written clearly and concisely.

Our aims and values

As an organisation, our values include ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘respect’, and one of the aims in our Strategic Plan is to, “encourage public involvement in our work through welcoming facilities and inclusive services.”

A tangible, straightforward way of putting this into practice is by writing more clearly. As Content Designer, Sarah Richards (an expert in how to present information online) puts it, doing this is “… not dumbing down, it’s opening up.”

If you want to find out more about the work Parliament is doing to open up access to its information and services, contact the web project team.