Keep it PLAIN!

There are two official languages you can use while working for the public service in Canada. And there’s one unofficial language. I’m doing some really interesting work with Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) right now and I was describing it to my Dad the other day. But I was using that third language and he had no idea what I was saying!

My Dad is amazing. He has a host of letters behind his name – two Bachelor degrees, a Master’s (actually, two, if you count the thesis that my grandmother threw out!), and a doctorate. He has been the Head Master/Principal of day schools and boarding schools in both Canada and the US, while serving as a minister in the Anglican Church. He’s no slouch.  We discuss the research I’m doing, the role of the media, about the way the Canadian government functions (or doesn’t), and I am certain many people would be hard pressed to keep up to his intellect.

I like it when he knows what I am doing, because he can always provide me with unbiased and critical advice without being immersed in the middle of a project. So the other night, I launched into a description of this NRCan program. And despite my father’s knowledge, wisdom and experience, it was really hard for him to understand what I was trying to explain. He’s really smart, but he doesn’t have a background that provides him a context for understanding this kind of stuff.

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My incredible Dad and my brother. Looks like Dad’s giving autographs!

I found I was speaking another language, a language that was based in jargon, acronyms and techie-speak that was difficult to translate. ARGH! I was becoming a jargon-head!!!

My father laughed and laughed as I struggled to communicate. It was his laughter that made me realize that if I was going to continue to work as a communicator in my consulting business, I’d better find a way to explain everything in such a way that my Dad, or my daughter or anyone not in the “industry in question” can understand.

A few weeks ago, Gail and I helped deliver the Ontario Parks Leadership Foundations Course. During that time, I met Bradley Fauteax, the relatively new Managing Director of Ontario Parks. I liked him for a few reasons. First, he loves single malt, so we’re bonded for life. He’s also got a music degree and loves to sing. Those two are enough to build a friendship on, but it is the third reason that got my respect. Bradley uses plain language. He speaks clearly, doesn’t mask anything in techno-babble, and as a result, his listeners pay attention…because he is easy to understand.

My friend Julie Towers is the same way. She is a biologist, field trials judge, single malt lover, fly fisher, and currently Executive Director of the Renewable Resources Branch of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources. She has a multitude of talents, but her business colleagues tell me one of her finest talents is that she speaks and writes so that everyone can understand her.

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

Julie, using plain (sign) language!

I challenge you to look at a document, or at something you are reading or working on, and test it for clarity. Surely you and those in your line of business can understand it. But would my father? How could you explain it to him so that he does? How can you provide the context as well as the information?

Tonight, I’m going to tell my Dad about the plain language project that my friend and colleague Christina and I are going to work on for NRCan, and get his advice. I’m also going to pour myself a single malt, call Julie and see what she has to say.

I do love my work!

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One thought on “Keep it PLAIN!

  1. Great post Susan! A reminder to everyone to consider plain language if they want to communicate effectively. Know your audience. A topic that comes up in my world of Public Relations all the time. Hope you enjoyed your single malt!

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