How to Use Plain Language for Learning

, , , | Colin Dawson

My client was puzzled.

He had new software for his HR team

The supplier had provided a manual (and charged for it)

Despite this, managers bombarded the HR staff with phone calls and made many mistakes

We finally concluded that the problem was the legalese used rather than everyday language.

Here’s some tips to use to keep your writing for learning clean.

Know Your Audience

Knowing who you are writing for is critical for effective instructional design.  It’s more than knowing who the content is for; its understanding that audience thoroughly.

  • What does their typical workday look like?
  • What are their biggest job-related challenges and pain points?
  • What’s their education level.

The better you can understand your learners the better you can meet their needs.

Keep It Simple

Short, simple sentences with common language are generally best for everyone.  The aim of plain writing is not to “dumb down” your information but to ensure that it is easy to read for your audience.

Make Sure It’s Readable

The Flesch Reading Ease Formula  is considered one of the oldest and most accurate readability formulas.

This formula calculates how easy the text is to read.  The formula considers the number of words per sentence and syllables per word.

Speak Directly to Your Audience

No matter how many people may read your document, remember you are only speaking to one person at a time.  When your writing reflects this, its more economical and has greater impact.  Speaking directly to the user – as in the following example, makes the information more personal so it feels more applicable.

Unclear and Impersonal:

“Completion of Form 1082-A and supervisory approval, prior to filing the promotion application to HR and entering the action in the system, are required for managers wishing to request promotion of employees”

Flesch Reading Ease: 8.8

Clear and More Direct

“To Promote an employee:

  1. Complete Form 1082-A
  2. Obtain your supervisor’s signature on the form
  3. Submit the form to HR
  4. Enter the promotion in the system using the job aid

Flesch Reading Ease: 63.5

Organise the Information

People read to get answers, so provide the information to them quickly using the “BLUF” concept: state the Bottom Line Up Front

Clearly state what the course is about and what it will help the learner achieve.  Anticipate questions so you can clearly answer them.  Most importantly, answer the question, “What’s in it for me”.

Use a table of contents in complex documents so readers can find what they need quickly.

Use headings and subheadings to organise content, break up blocks of text, and make it easy to find information.  Using white space can also break up text and help learners find information quickly.  Charts, graphs, and images provide at-a-glance visual information.

As Cathy Moore advises, “focus on the minimum that people need to know to complete the activity”.

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