Can Plain Language save cost? – You better believe it!

Did you know that ‘plain language’ is the law?

In October 2010, Barack Obama signed the ‘Plain Language’ bill. It mandated that all federal communications adhere to plain language principals. The implementation deadline is October 2011. By that date, all fed communications must be plain language compliant… better get our skates on!

For those new to the phrase; ‘Plain Language’ seeks to simplify written language; the result is clear and unambiguous communication. The net effect is easier to review text.

Why would the US government, the president no less, mandate such an esoteric thing as plain language?

Let’s consider a case study. The State of Washington implemented a “Plain Talk” program across all state agencies some time ago. Read more here: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-12-10-washington-plain-talk_x.htm

The results were pretty astounding:

After rewriting one letter, the Department of Revenue dramatically boosted its use-tax collections:

  • Tripled number of businesses voluntarily paying use tax from 3% to 9%
  • Goal: $1.2 million extra revenue in first year. Actual: $2 million extra collected.
  • Cost: 1 cent for every dollar collected.

The benefits of ‘plain language’ apply equally to both Bid development and IT Delivery. Poorly written, overly complex documents lead to direct cost; including misunderstandings and extra cycles.

The reality for RFP responses is that applying plain language scans increases Bid Response quality. For IT programs, it results in decreased rework.

To this end; we have been building out our Plain Language analysis capabilities in VisibleThread. Already we scan for bad language flagging buzz words and uncommon/risky terms. The new Plain Analysis capabilities bring us further. I thought I would offer a sneak preview.

To do so, I took a collection of actual IRS documents from here: http://www.irs.gov/app/picklist/list/formsPublications.html .The following view shows the actual stats for each of these documents.

It took me 5 minutes to upload the 9 IRS docs above (all .pdf) and the results are intriguing. In one case, a doc with over 28,000 words (p17 highlighted in green) has significantly better readability and less passive language than a much smaller doc of 2000 words (highlighted in red). Wow!

The stats include: ‘Readability Index’, ‘Passive Language Density’, ‘Average sentence length’ & ‘number long sentences’. If you conduct a plain language audit, these are core checks. This view is powerful. It provides an instant comparison point across all your response volumes pinpointing issues.

The following shows an actual technical volume analysed by VisibleThread. The result is pretty illuminating. Tech Volume part 2 (highlighted in red) has; a lower readability score, a significantly higher passive language density (16% in part 2 vs 6% in part 1), and a much higher average sentence length ( 19 words in part 2 versus just 9 words in part 1).

Guess we better sort out Tech Volume part 2!

What simple steps can you take to work in plain language principals?

  1. Eliminate Long sentences: Aside from being candidates for simplification, long sentences often mask several different requirements. They are thus hard to track. Splitting up the sentence is a first step.
  2. Ensuring a verb driven approach: Active (verb preceding noun) rather than passive (noun preceding verb) language makes for far more understandable statements.
  3. Remove redundant verbs.

If a Bid Proposal manager can finely tune their language to be concise and understandable, it drives a positive reaction for reviewers. If an IT professional adopts these principals, it lowers program execution risk.

We are really excited about the possibilities of plain language as it applies to Bid Development and IT Delivery. Stay tuned for more on this. Call or mail our sales team if you’d like a demo of your docs run through the VT plain language ‘hopper’. We’re very happy to offer sneak peeks. In case you’re wondering, we expect this capability to go live 2nd half of July.


If you are interested in learning more, including ‘before’ and ‘after’ examples check out these links:

–          Fed Plain Language Resources: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/index.cfm

–          Examples: http://www.plainlanguage.gov/examples/government/index.cfm

–          Washington State Case Study: http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-12-10-washington-plain-talk_x.htm

–          SEC Plain Language guidelines http://www.sec.gov/news/extra/handbook.htm

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