We’re currently experiencing a global crisis like no other. COVID-19 has taken hold in a matter of months. It emerged at the beginning of the year. By Spring, it had spread to pretty much all corners of the globe. Information is changing constantly, sometimes minute to minute. Organizations have had to adapt to the developing situation, and communicate with their customers throughout. It’s easy to understand why plain language standards have sometimes slipped. We’re under intense pressure. It’s a complex crisis, and complex words and phrases have crept into vocabulary, almost without us realizing.
And yet, we’ve also seen some excellent examples of companies and individuals communicating clearly.
In praise of clear communicators
“At his daily press conferences, Cuomo mostly delivers plain, unvarnished facts (lots of them). Using simple and accessible language, he makes clear what is known, what is not known, and what is uncertain about the pandemic.”
And he tweets clearly too. This tweet encouraging New Yorkers to wear face masks uses plain language, and short sentences. It has a grade level of 1. A six-year-old would be able to understand it:
UK app-based bank Monzo set up back in 2015. Now valued at £2 billion, it has 3 million customers, and is planning a U.S. expansion. The people at Monzo understand the importance of customer trust. And the part language plays in building trust:
|“If the way we communicate confuses, frustrates or scares them, we can lose their hard-earned trust in seconds. It’s especially important when we’re dealing with sensitive subjects, difficult topics or technical stuff. Those are the moments of truth when people will decide if we’re really transparent, and if we really have their best interests at heart.”|
Its communications around COVID-19 have stayed true to their plain-speaking, no jargon approach. They have
easy-to-understand blog posts on their site. This one clearly explains the ways in which they are helping customers through the crisis. Another gives useful tips on what to do if you can’t pay your rent. The following sentence has a grade level of 4.3:
|“If you can’t pay your rent and your landlord wants to evict you, there are a few steps they have to take. And it’s illegal for them not to follow these steps.”|
It includes no jargon, and no long words. A ten-year-old could understand it.
Communications that miss the mark
And we’ve also seen many examples where individuals and organizations communicate less clearly. It’s understandable for these reasons:
- The subject matter is brand new and often technical in nature
- SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) often forget their audience is outside of their circle. And won’t necessarily understand specific technical terms and phrases
- The information is changing from minute to minute
- Multiple writers are creating lots of communications. And different writers have different styles and tone of voice
It’s not too surprising that organizations sometimes drop the ball.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has communicated a lot of complex messages during the pandemic. Let’s first acknowledge they have done some fantastic work. For example, they worked with technology companies to develop a COVID-19 dashboard with data visualization. Their website includes updates, videos, and advice for the public on COVID-19.
However, they have missed some opportunities to clarify information. Take this example from the mythbusting section of their online Public Health advice. The myth posed is that “COVID-19 virus does not transmit in areas with hot and humid climates”. WHO offer the following response:
|“From the evidence so far, the COVID-19 virus can be transmitted in ALL AREAS, including areas with hot and humid weather. Regardless of climate, adopt protective measures if you live in, or travel to an area reporting COVID-19. The best way to protect yourself against COVID-19 is by frequently cleaning your hands. By doing this you eliminate viruses that may be on your hands and avoid infection that could occur by then touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.”|
We scanned this paragraph through VT Writer. These long words and sentences make this paragraph a grade level 10. That means people need at least ten years of education to be able to understand it. Most people do not have ten years of education. In the US, the average grade level is 8. And in a crisis, we should communicate at an even lower grade level. Ideally at 6th grade.
So we simplified the text by swapping out a few of the complex phrases such as:
- Adopt protective measures
The new paragraph reads:
|“Science tells us that the COVID-19 virus can spread in ALL AREAS. That includes areas that are hot and humid. In any weather, you must protect yourself if you live in, or travel to, a place where people have COVID-19. The best way to protect yourself is by cleaning your hands often. By doing this you get rid of viruses that may be on your hands. You also avoid infection that could take place by then touching your eyes, mouth, and nose.”|
We uploaded the new text and we can see that its grade level is 4.7. This paragraph is now accessible to all.
The healthcare industry has had to adapt very swiftly to the new and changing climate. Doctors have started treating patients remotely. CNBC reports that “Hospitals have set up chat bots, symptom checkers and telemedicine tools virtually overnight”. And the Centers for Medicare and Medicare Services (CMS) have had to communicate the new services to their members. Their press release opens with the sentence:
|“Under President Trump’s leadership, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has broadened access to Medicare telehealth services so that beneficiaries can receive a wider range of services from their doctors without having to travel to a healthcare facility.”|
We analyzed this sentence with VT Writer. It has a whopping 40 words, and a grade level of 23. The reader would need 23 years of education to easily understand this sentence. It’s pitched at doctorate level. It includes unnecessarily long words such as “beneficiaries”, “broadened” and “healthcare facility”. Also – do people understand the term “telehealth”? This is a brand new service. And should be explained.
Remember that Medicare serves U.S. citizens who are 65 years old or over. In our
2019 research we analyzed Medicare documentation. Our report showed that 1/3 of the U.S. population that cannot read are in this age bracket. There is a huge gap between the reading level of the CMS’s communications, and the audience who needs to understand them.
We re-wrote the sentence from the CMS about telehealth. It now reads:
|“Under President Trump’s leadership, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has opened up access to telehealth services. Telehealth services allow you to get medical support from home. All you need is a computer or phone. This means that members can contact doctors without travelling to hospital.”|
The sentence is now a grade level 10. 13 grade levels lower, making it easier to understand.
Of course, no-one intends to alienate or confuse their audience, especially in a crisis. However, the difference between someone understanding your content (or not), is actually a matter of minutes. Review the words you use. Test it for readability and grade-level. Edit out more complex words, and keep sentences short. You’ll see a big difference in the readability of your content. And, therefore, the trust and loyalty that customers feel towards your organization.
How to keep your language simple
Here is some advice to help you on the way to clear crisis communications. To start with, we published tips on how to avoid complex language in this blog.
And organizations advising on health issues should consult these plain language resources:
- Plainlanguage.gov offers specific advice on plain language in healthcare
- The CDC’s Plain Language Resources
- The Plain Language Thesaurus from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- The National Institutes for Health’s plain language resources and materials
Readability solutions such as VT Writer and VT Insights also help to lighten the workload by scoring your text for complexity. And suggesting how you can simplify your content.
“Clear guidelines, clear instructions”
In a recent podcast for the New Yorker, cognitive psychologist Daniel Kahneman gave his views on how the government should handle a crisis such as COVID-19. He explained that we shouldn’t leave decision-making up to the individual. People need specific and easy-to-understand guidelines to follow:
“There should be clear guidelines and clear instructions.”
In a public health emergency, everyone needs to be able to understand your messages. That’s why Governor Cuomo’s crisis communications have been so well received. Einstein said that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”. That also goes for how you use language in a crisis. Simplify, and use everyday words, whenever you can. When you cannot, take time to explain or define the words you’ve used.