I've had an interesting change of heart and mind over the last two weeks. And it came out of a session I was facilitating at the PLAIN 2013 Vancouver Conference.
When Cheryl asked me to facilitate speakers who were writing narratives but were cartoonists, I mentally rolled my eyes. Then I muttered to myself, "Cartoonists presenting at a plain-language conference? Now, the dumbing-down is real!" But it was late in the planning and I didn't want to ask for another session.
Good thing that I didn't! Here's the story.
The first "cartoonist" was David H.T. Wong, author of Escape to Gold Mountain, A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America (2012).
I finished reading his 239-page book a few days ago. Yes, it's that long. And this over-150-year history of how the Chinese have been treated, and how they endured, is a stunning history book. In fact, I learned about all kinds of mistreatments and discriminations and cruelties that I knew nothing about. Yes, I had heard of the legislation restricting Chinese immigration in both Canada and the USA, I had heard of the Head Tax, and our PM's apology to the Chinese a couple of years ago. But the significance of these racist decisions and other behaviours I didn't know. The absence of this kind of information in our educational system saddens me.
In fact, in Canada, it is parallel to the educational vacuum we have about First Nations people and their significance and value to our history. When I read John Ralston Saul's A Fair Country, I felt I had been waiting all my life to have a more balanced view of colonial history and the role First Nations played.
Well, what can I say about David's "graphic history"? To me it was a very fine academic surprise. As an illustrated history (more accurate than "cartoons";), it contains:
a Table of Contents (aptly titled Contents)
Introductions by (1) a professor and founding member of the Canadian Historical Society of BC, (2) an American Ethics Studies Senior Lecturer at University of Washington, and (3) a third with the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project at an Asian Pacific Museum
a glossary of Chinglish
an illustrated timeline
a travel map and introduction to David Wong's family
13 chapters powerfully and cleverly illustrated with developing characterization and plot
Notes and References
David Wong personalizes this history by writing about his own family's story of hardship, courage, and triumph over five generations. But most interesting of all was my realization that the visual portrayal of such a painful and sensitive story turned out to be such a success. Rather than degrading or dumbing down the substance, it inspired me to keep "reading". Yes, it was reading. Some of the conversation balloons were bigger than usual cartoon speech holders, but the details were concrete and clear and in plain language. The combination of historical facts and people combined with the pictures spellbound me in a way that mere text would never have done.
I began to wonder whether some emotional topics, for example, in fields such as history, education, health and medical fields might at times be more effectively portrayed with graphic narratives.
Then I turned to the book by the second presenter, Sarah Leavitt, entitled Tangles, A Story about Alzheimer's, my mother, and me (2012)
Sorry everybody. This will be shorter.
Sarah's book, a graphic memoir, is 125 pages but it is just over 8" by 10" in size, two inches wider than David's. It is an illustrated narrative about the last six years Sarah spent with her mother before she died. Her text is a tidy hand-written font without balloons. Sometimes she uses a comic space that is just text. Sometimes there are three comic spaces with developing facial expressions and no text. If she is lying down on a couch and sad, she takes two long spaces for the sadness. If she wants to highlight a poignant event or gift, she uses a whole page of space with a tiny diagram and short text. All the white space leaves room for the reader's emotional reaction.
As someone who has had a family member die of Alzheimer's, I found this book particularly relevant. We learn about all the stages--from the early signs and diagnosis to her death and the related effects on the family. This story is more like an autobiography because Sarah reveals all kinds of personal information about her life, relationships, and personality. And we're admiring of her, annoyed and interested in her, switching amongst these as she moves through the moments, experiences and encounters with her mother. She tells us about incidents from her childhood. They affect how she reacts to her mother's illness. Slowly we begin to love Sarah and her mother and family as we get to know them through the Alzheimer's process. She gives the reader an astonishingly honest and open portrait of herself.
Again, this particular story, with its characters' fears, annoyances, creativity, spontaneity, and love, embraces its readers in a way mere words might not. I acknowledge that many stories may only be written with words and that they may be completely emotionally affecting.
But I have learned that visual narratives or graphic histories can work wonderfully in certain contexts. Two media in one book combine their skills more effectively than I ever imagined. I have changed my mind. Cartoons are no longer "just comic books".
by Christine Mowat
Founder and Past President, Wordsmith Associates
Past Chair, Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN)
Originally posted on PLAIN's forum. Reprinted with permission from Christine Mowat
Lisa Mighton reports on the presentation by Karine Nicolay of Belgium on the IC Clear project.
Karine Nicolay announced the development of a fascinating project that she is coordinating in Belgium. IC Clear is an online course in clear communication - a project of the International Consortium For Clear Communication, funded by the European Union. It will launch in April 2014 in beta, with the official launch at a plain language conference in Belgium in November 2014.
Successful communication is critical in this ‘information age’. IC Clear (www.icclear.net) will develop, pilot and implement a postgraduate course in clear communication to respond to the increase in demand for clear, easy-to-understand information and the lack of well-trained clear communication professionals. Depending on the outcomes of a survey to industry professionals, the course will consist of an innovative mix of plain language, information design and usability techniques. At the moment, no such specialized, interdisciplinary clear communication training exists. The IC Clear consortium is a partnership of four higher education institutions and a language institute from Austria, Belgium, Portugal, Canada and Estonia.
Increased legislation requiring clear communication is one reason that the IC Clear team successfully used to get sponsors.
In its development, they did a survey of professionals in related fields.. Similarly to Australian speaker Neil James, Nicolay argued that clear language should be an interdisciplinary field, and this made them decide on the breadth of the course content: it covers writing, usability, design and management skills.
Post-talk I asked Nicolay if the course will be available to all internationally in spite of European funding, and it will. I also asked about the cost and she said that they don’t yet know, and are open to suggestions about what people might be willing to pay. Visit ICClear.net
Here in Canada, Simon Fraser University's Lifelong Learning is one of the five international major partners in this IC Clear project.
TED talk - The Right to Understand
Sandra Fisher-Martins fights “information apartheid” -- the barrier created by overly complex language. Medical, legal, and financial documents should be easy to read, but too often they aren’t. With spot-on (and funny) examples, Sandra Fisher Martins shows how overly complex language separates us from the information we need -- and three steps to change that. In Portuguese with English subtitles.
Decoda Literacy Solutions
1. Why is plain language important in your field/work?
It is important in my work because the focus of literacy is about understanding and obtaining meaning from text. If the text is written using convoluted language that is beyond the level of the reader, then the reader will not understand it and may very well stop reading.
2. What is your presentation focus, and what are some of the key points participants will learn?
My presentation focus is on the link between literacy and plain language. How our knowledge of how people read effectively and flexibly helps us to craft plain language writings.
3. What is the best plain language advice you can give, or have received?
Stop calling it plain language. That implies the message has been made overly simple and boring. At Decoda Literacy Solutions we prefer to use the term clear language and bring into the discussion the importance of the elements of design such as choice of fonts and use of white space. Clear language and design – it’s about clarity – is your message clear?
Decoda Literacy Solutions
Say it plainly
by Tanya Trusler
A Multifaceted Approach to Building Capacity for Best Practices in Developing Written Patient Education Materials
from Kathy Scarborough
Fraser Health Authority (FHA) is a large organization providing health care in-home, hospital, and community from Burnaby to Boston Bar, British Columbia.
Health care professionals develop and provide written education materials to clients and patients so they can learn
The formal launch of the patient education services for FHA was in 2012. The outcomes of the launch included:
View the poster here:
Mark Hochhauser, Phd. presented this session using this slideshow: http://www.slideshare.net/CherylStephens/hochhauser-plain2013presentation and this handout. Discussion is going on here: http://www.plain2013.org/2/post/2013/10/how-readers-really-think-by-mark-hochhauser.html
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SI = Speaker Interviews