Clarity needs strategy to ensure successful change

Last week I was thrilled to be asked to speak about Rewrite at the Plain English Community of Practice meeting. Big thanks to those hardy souls who braved Wellington’s atrocious weather that day to attend.

The meeting was for people working in government who had a special interest in using and promoting plain English. Talking to people who are already committed to the ideal of plain English is high on my list of happy things. Talking about the why and how of taking a strategic approach, one that links clear communication with an organisation’s purpose and success, is even better.

Something became very clear to me during that meeting. The majority of people interested in championing plain English are still working hard to fight small battles — battles that are necessary at the time but will never win the war. We know the need for plain English in government is widely accepted. So it seems a shame that committed people have to spend so much time and energy convincing their highly educated colleagues to let go of jargon terms or cut a piece of text to make it readable.

Taking a strategic, standards-based approach — one that links quality writing to organisational success — provides a remarkably effective short-cut to reducing resistance and improving writing quality. A strategic approach can be challenging in the first few months. But the effort can pay off surprisingly quickly.

One of my favourite examples of fast results is the story from New Zealand’s Commerce Commission, where a strategic approach built momentum rapidly. Brent Alderton, Chief Executive, with Allanah Kalafatelis, the Commission’s former Communications Manager, took a pragmatic approach. As Allanah reported, ‘People quickly realised we were serious, and that plain English wasn’t a fad that would just go away… We started to have a buzz in the organisation and people didn’t want to be left out. It was exciting when we realised what was happening! We started to get feedback that even those with solid academic backgrounds had learnt a lot and were influencing others to use the new style. In fact, some of our biggest converts were academics.’

Not every organisation can achieve staff buy-in so quickly (we wish!), but eventually a strategic approach will win the day.

Read what the Commerce Commission did to fast-track their success in Part 3 of Rewrite.

Clarity LyndaLynda Harris with the organisers of the plain English Community of Practice: (from left to right) Lynda, Lindsay Botham (IRD), Megan O’Donovan (DIA), and Wendy Harker (IRD).