Sustaining plain English — Castalia’s story of ongoing success

Plain English programmes are often the catalyst for organisational improvement. Getting to grips with clearer and more client-focused writing at an organisational level can have dramatic effects on a business’s bottom line. And equally as important, implementing a plain English style of writing can dramatically improve working relationships within an organisation.

Success stories from organisations large and small are captured in Rewrite. But, rather than basking in the glory of a project well implemented, most of these organisations also acknowledge that there’s no end point.

So how can change be sustained in the long term? How do you make plain English stick? Castalia Strategic Advisors — an international consultancy — offers us valuable insights.

Investing in a core company value

Castalia’s co-founder and Chief Executive David Ehrhardt made plain English a core company value from the very beginning. And David attributes part of the company’s year-on-year growth to its rigorous and continued focus in this area.

In 2007 Castalia were named Plain English Champion — Best Organisation in New Zealand’s prestigious Plain English Awards. These Awards aim to raise the bar for clear communication in public and private business within New Zealand.

Fast-forward to 2015, and Castalia’s management decided to enter the Plain English Awards again, to see whether they were still performing at the top of the plain English game. To Castalia’s great pride, they again won the Best Organisation category, 8 years after they’d won it the first time.

‘Winning this award again proved to us that we’d managed to sustain the standard we’d set all those years earlier,’ says Castalia’s Plain English Specialist, Pamela Todd.

To make sure plain English was embedded in the company’s DNA, Castalia focused on four strategies:

  • expecting plain English
  • training to the Standard
  • measuring against the Standard
  • celebrating the company’s achievements.

Expecting plain English

Plain English is part of the Castalia brand and ethos. The company’s focus on plain English ‘was never going to be a 6-month project’.

‘Our ongoing focus on plain English goes back to our core values. It’s about integrity. David made a commitment to plain English and we view that commitment as never-ending’, says Pamela.

All staff are expected to meet Castalia’s comprehensive Plain English Standard in everything they write. The Standard has 6 elements and 36 checklist items. If staff comply with the checklist items, they should comply with the element to which these items relate.

In the 8 years between Castalia’s awards, the company’s long-term core of practice leaders sustained and refined expectations. They embedded plain English writing as an essential staff skill — and as something their clients had a right to expect.

‘The ‘Expect’ component of the Rewrite for Change™ Model was alive and well at Castalia. It has never decreased, but only increased over the years.’

Training people to meet the company’s Standard

Castalia’s sustained plain English capabilities also have a lot to do with the process of training and Quality Assurance that the company has refined since its first award.

Becoming part of the Castalia team is a competitive process. Applicants need to demonstrate that they are capable of meeting a high standard of plain English just to be considered for a role.

For those who make it through the recruitment process, one of the next steps is to introduce them to the Standard. Staff are then thoroughly trained in how to use the Standard. The Standard is critical, especially as one in three of Castalia’s people is a non-native speaker of English.

Everything that Castalia had at the start to support staff has been refined and documented. The firm has gone from a start-up phase to consolidating what it had originally done intuitively. Policies and procedures are now in place to support training and assessment. New staff attend an Introduction to Plain English course within 2 weeks of joining the company. Refresher training is provided and self-help is encouraged. Staff from Castalia’s five offices around the world email documents to the Plain English Specialist for assurance that they’re meeting the Standard. And all documents are proofread before being emailed to clients.

As an interesting aside, Castalia’s plain English training affects many people’s lives positively long after they’ve left the firm. A number of staff go from working at Castalia to working for other prestigious organisations such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the London School of Economics. Castalia staff’s reputation for not only writing clearly but also thinking clearly is one of the reasons they’re recruited by these organisations.

Measuring against the Standard … always

Rigorous measuring against the Castalia Plain English Standard has been key to success for the company’s focus on plain English. All documents must be edited to ensure they meet the Standard. Proofreaders will return documents that do not comply with the Standard.

Everyone’s writing is also assessed annually against the Standard, and results are directly linked to performance pay and promotion.

Pamela attributes this approach of rigorous assessment as one of the main reasons Castalia won the Best Organisation award twice over an 8-year period. And continual support of the Standard by the company’s team of practice leaders has also been crucial.

Celebrating the company’s achievements

As well as making its expectations clear, celebrating success has been another critical factor helping to make change permanent at Castalia. From the moment Castalia won its first Best Organisation award in 2007, the company mentioned the award in bids it worked on. It then added in the second award after winning it in 2015.

‘We see this as part of the proof that we can live up to expectations,’ says Pamela. ‘It shows our existing and potential clients that we do what we say we’ll do, and that we can sustain a high level of service.’

By celebrating its successes, Castalia has proved to clients that the company can perform at a high level over a long period of time. Celebration also fosters staff pride in the company’s plain English achievements.

How do you make plain English stick?
How do you make plain English stick? Image by Elena Elisseva on Shutterstock