(Please excuse the clunky Google translation from the original French)
Welcome to our continuation of our trip to meet the experts of plain language, all over the world. This time, we’re taking you to Melbourne Australia, to meet Andrew Pegler, who runs one of Australia’s leading agencies dedicated to plain language writing. In particular, he works with the Commonwealth Government on texts intended for Indigenous Australians as well as annual reports for Australia largest companies and major Federal and state governments reports.
Why did you start using plain language?
Because I am convinced that there is no communication without clarity, honesty and humility. I am also a staunch enemy of “gobbledygook”, i.e. technocratic gibberish. So, I try to write in a clear and concise way: it’s as simple as that! I started as a music journalist and it was already my way of doing things. When I created my agency at the turn of the 2000s, I naturally continued. Yet I had never heard of the “plain language” rules. I only learned of these “official” rules in 2004, when I discovered the PLAIN movement.
Is plain language widespread in Australia?
Yes, plain language has really become a habit. I would even say that there is social pressure for companies to communicate clearly. This is particularly true in the financial field. Here, the media point the finger at banks that lack clarity when presenting a product. And it happens that citizens take legal action against financial institutions that do not respect the rules of plain language. The pressure also exists for the administrations. In a democracy, citizens have the right to understand what the government expects of them and what it decides. The Australian government has understood this!
“In Australia, there is social pressure for governments and businesses to use plain language.”
Can you say a few words about your work with Indigenous Australians?
I have been working alongside the government for ten years, writing texts for Indigenous Australians. The themes are varied, since they range from social assistance to the rights of communities, to health protocols. The exercise is particularly demanding because English is the second language of these communities. They are not spoken to in the same way as the Australian middle class. The search for conciseness, clarity, hunting down gibberish is a complex exercise. It requires moving forward hand in hand with the communities, for example via focus groups to validate that the texts are well understood.
How do you see the future of plain language?
I think plain language has a bright future, for at least three reasons:
The pandemic has shown the strengths of plain language. In times of stress, you can’t afford to be vague. It’s efficiency that counts. Everything goes very quickly; each misinterpretation can be fatal. People are also afraid; they need to be reassured with clear and concise messages. Churchill understood this as early as the Battle of Britain. Did you know that at the time he issued an edict for bureaucrats to stop the “gobbledygook”?
Cut through requires conciseness: People are overwhelmed with information. They no longer have time to waste trying to understand unreadable mail. They want to quickly understand what is expected of them… just to be able to move on to the next post on Instagram!
Plain language saves companies money: It has a real impact on productivity and business. Conversion rates are better, the number of complaints is lower.
What tips can you give for writing in plain language?
- The first piece of advice would be to put yourself in the shoes of the person who is going to read. You must imagine the age, sex, habits, is fears, profession, etc. In short, you have to create your marketing “persona”. I always start there, whether I’m writing an annual report, a letter for an insurer or texts for Indigenous Australian populations.
- The second advice would be to look for the limit point – that point beyond which it is no longer possible to clarify without losing the meaning and the message. Einstein said it much better, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler”.
- Of course, I also advise following the common sense rules of plain language: short, affirmative, active-form sentences, key message at the beginning, etc. In English or French, they are the same!
Read the original interview in French.