Eight hundred million pounds. That's a lot of coconuts. And its also the amount of money just one British government department is losing each year - simply by using the wrong words. This news story on Yahoo's United Kingdom homepage illustrates the economic and social importance of crystal clear written communications.
Benefits leaflets 'too difficult'
Tuesday January 23, 01:10 PM
Vulnerable people could be missing out on benefits because leaflets explaining their rights are too difficult to understand, an MPs' committee has warned.
Key leaflets published by the Department for Work and Pensions require a reading age above the national average to be understood, said a report by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
The MPs warned a "torrent" of official documents made it more difficult for claimants to find vital information, and welcomed the DWP's success in cutting its total number of leaflets from 245 in 2005 to 178 last year, with the eventual goal of reducing them to 145.
The report said some of the language used in DWP leaflets can confuse claimants. The committee found 14 different terms used to describe a payment.
"For leaflets to be of value, it is essential that the information they contain can be understood by customers with a wide range of levels of education," said the report.
"However, in the absence of simple design measures such as contents pages and clear layouts, information in the department's leaflets is often difficult for readers to use."
Just 81 of the current 178 leaflets have gained the Plain English Campaign's Crystal Mark for comprehensibility, said the report.
And around 40% of leaflets collected for the committee from DWP offices across the country were out of date, while only half of the outlets were able to provide the leaflets requested.
The report warned giving the public incomplete, inaccurate or out-of-date information led to more customer errors, which currently cost the department around ï¿½800 million a year.
And it noted the DWP was unable to rule out a repeat of a previous problem with an outdated pensions leaflet, which cost the Government an estimated ï¿½8 billion in future savings.
So what is Plain English?
Plain English is a way of using language that gives the intended audience complete understanding of the message. There is often a misconception that Plain English means "dumbing down" language - it's not. It is, however:
1. removing unnecessary jargon,
2. simplifying sentence structures to remove ambiguities
3. using appropriate language for the audience
4. using more active verbs (for example, Peter watched the kettle NOT The kettle was watched by Peter)
5. Personalising the message by using "you" and "we" (rather than "the applicant" and "the company" for example).
A crystal clear message is much more likely to generate action whether it is for marketing purposes, instructional use, or even broaching more delicate subjects, such as monies owed! Remember Plain English doesn't mean boring English, it just means your message will come across stronger than before.
The Plain English Campaign started in England in 1972, and has grown into a global movement. You can find out more about the campaign and its work at www.plainenglish.co.uk. Penhire are advocates of Plain English method, so watch this space for more news and information about this topic.