How Plain English Can Reduce the Spread of Covid-19
The Federal Government’s launch this month of the ‘How’s Your Head Today’ mental health awareness campaign in response to the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need for information to be widely and clearly available to diverse communities.
Recent outbreaks have stemmed from a lack of co-ordination in ensuring the right messages reached the right people at the right time. The entire country has paid the price as a result.
Communicating effectively with those who are vulnerable and at risk has never been more crucial. One of the most recent outbreaks can be traced to a CALD family that did not fully understand the situation or the steps they should take to protect themselves and others.
Many of those most affected by the virus are in culturally and linguistically diverse or CALD communities and are migrants or refugees. If your organisation aims to help these people, this article will help you make sure your audience understands your message.
Why Plain English now?
It is imperative now more than ever that health promotion messages are written in Plain English. Why? Because lives are at stake! With Covid-19 swirling around us, messages about how to stay safe are crucial. And if those messages are misunderstood by their intended audience, the risk of the virus spreading via community interaction increases exponentially.
We owe it to each other, ourselves and our communities to make our messages clear and easy to understand. That way we all do our bit to limit the spread of the virus!
Tips for Writing in Plain English
When writing for diverse audiences it pays to keep everything as easy as possible to understand. One way to do this is to write in short sentences (around 25 words) and only two to three sentences per paragraph.
Negative words can create a negative tone. As in ‘We can’t complete your request because you failed to provide identification.’ When written positively, the effect is quite different: ‘In order for us to complete your request, you will need to provide identification.’ The latter will leave the reader feeling less like they are being admonished. It also acts as an instruction the reader can follow to get the results they want.
Unnecessary words or waffle is often obvious when talking with people, but not always in writing. Still, it’s often there when you look closely.
The trick to getting rid of information-type waffle is to know what’s important and what is less so. Then we can concentrate on the important information and discard the rest. To work out what is truly important, we need a very clear idea of:
What we want the audience to LEARN
What we want the audience to DO
Then, all we have to do is decide what information is essential to support those learning and taking action. Everything else is … waffle.
When you use abbreviations and acronyms your audience may not understand your meaning unless you write the words in full the first time you use them. As an extra precaution, add the abbreviation in brackets straight after the term so it is clear to readers what it means when they see it elsewhere in the document.
Most writing benefits from being written in a similar style to the spoken word, and translation is no exception. The exceptions would be academic, medical or industry-specific material where the terminology is important.
Find a more common alternative. The health industry is one where complicated terms are used indiscriminately. This makes it very difficult for diverse communities to understand the topic being discussed, let alone any action you want them to take. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Will they understand the term you are using without it being explained? If not, don’t use it.
Slang and cliches
We often use slang words and phrases when speaking. They appear less often in writing but can creep in if we’re not careful. These expressions may be intrinsically understood by English-speaking Australians but those from other countries may not have any clue what is being said.
Here are the first few examples listed on ielts.com.au:
Cliches may be more general rather than being Australian-centric but they can still be confusing. Examples are:
Using words with multiple meanings will confuse readers and you will lose your audience. If you want your piece to be understood, be clear about what you mean. Again, find alternatives if your first choice could be misconstrued.
Are you working with culturally and linguistically diverse communities in Australia? We believe that access to information is a basic need that hasn't yet been met for Australian CALD communities.
We feel so strongly about this that we are offering a 10-day Plain English email course – 10 Strategies in 10 days: a bite-size guide to plain language. To find out more and register visit https://sylaba.com.au/10day-pl-registration/