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.
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:
Lynda Harris, Write Limited
1. Why is plain language important in your field/work?
We’re a plain language consultancy firm.Plain language (often called plain English here in New Zealand) is what gets us out of bed in the morning! Actually, it’s the benefits of plain language that get us excited. Plain language isn’t an end in itself. It’s a vehicle to helping organisations achieve their purpose — whether that be social good or making a profit. I believe most organisations are blind to the fact that writing style is a major predictor of organisational success. And of course, when organisations write plainly, consumers and citizens benefit. So ,working in the field of plain language is a way of contributing, very positively, to society.
2. What is your presentation focus, and what are some of the key points participants will learn?
I’m doing an author conversation about our new (upcoming) book called Rewrite: How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit.
In my session, I’ll talk about the Rewrite for Change™ model, tell some of the stories and discuss the lessons we gleaned from them, and share some of the best resources for getting results.
Most of all, I hope to show that almost anyone with vision and determination can transform the way their organisation communicates.
3. What does the future hold for plain language?
I believe that plain language is steadily becoming a recognised and sought after professional discipline. Plain language is fast moving away from being seen as the domain of editors and proofreaders. Practitioners can rightfully take their place as change managers, working in the boardroom rather than the backroom.
‘Citizen language’, another term for plain language, is already reasonably well established, or at least encouraged, in many government organisations worldwide and parts of the private sector are not far behind. I believe there is huge scope for plain language work in the fields of law, finance, and health, where consumer expectations of clarity, transparency and ethical behaviour are coming to the fore.
For plain language practitioners who think beyond the words, I believe the future is very bright.
1. Why is plain language important in your field/work?
Plain language is our raison d’ȇtre — we’re a plain language consultancy firm.
2. What is your presentation focus, and what are some of the key points participants will learn?
I’m doing two presentations. One is about a financial disclosure document that made history by becoming the first investment statement to carry the WriteMark Plain English Standard. Participants at this session will discover that, contrary to popular belief, a once-complex financial document can become clear and reader-friendly.
The other presentation is with Sarah Stacy-Baynes of the Cancer Society of New Zealand. It’s about making a good document even better by using a combination of document user-testing and elements-based assessment against a standard. Participants will have some fun trying out one type of document user-testing. They’ll also hear about the successes and challenges of refining a health information booklet that most people will use only when they, or a friend or family member, receive a difficult and stressful diagnosis.
And I’d love to put in a plug for another presentation from Write Limited. Do come and hear Lynda Harris talking about her new book called Rewrite: How to overcome daily sabotage of your brand and profit. We could have called this book Everything you need to know about creating a plain language culture in your organisation. It’s the ultimate how-to manual for plain language!
a) What is the best plain language advice you can give, or have received?
Put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Imagine a real person reading your document. (And remember they’re probably any one of: busy at work, pressed for time, tired, stressed, or disinterested. Whether highly literate or not, they deserve a document that’s clear, concise, and readable.)
The Mayor has proclaimed Plain Language Week for our conference, ending on International Plain Language Day. This will be the first week and the 3rd annual day to celebrate plain language advances.
One of the hot topics at conferences is the presentations - and presenters. We are all passionate about plain language - what it means, why we need it, how to integrate it, where it is embraced around the globe, and who has the latest ideas. But, if this passion doesn't come across clearly, doesn't connect with the audience, and, doesn't leave a great impression - all the energy put into it is wasted.
TED - the most famous platform for public speakers - offers top presentation tips in the Harper's Business Review links to TED curator Chris Anderson's 'How to give a Killer Presentation' series. Whether we love presenting, or dread it; whether we are experienced, or just starting out; whether we know our topic intimately, or want to share something new - we can all benefit from tips on sharing with others from the podium.
Watch for presenter e-interviews on plain language, their presentations and personal insights coming soon.
10 Things NOT to Do When Presenting
'10 Ways to Ruin a Presentation' - As hard as it may be to give a great talk, it’s really easy to blow it. Here are some common mistakes that TED advises its speakers to avoid.
1. Take a really long time to explain what your talk is about.
2. Speak slowly and dramatically. Why talk when you can orate?
3. Make sure you subtly let everyone know how important you are.
4. Refer to your book repeatedly. Even better, quote yourself from it.
5. Cram your slides with numerous text bullet points and multiple fonts.
6. Use lots of unexplained technical jargon to make yourself sound smart.
7. Speak at great length about the history of your organization and its glorious achievements.
8. Don’t bother rehearsing to check how long your talk is running.
9. Sound as if you’re reciting your talk from memory.
10. Never, ever make eye contact with anyone in the audience"
We hope to see some lawyers at PLAIN2013, in fact, we planned a few things just for you! Our conference has been organized in collaboration with Canada's Public Legal Education Association (PLEAC), so you can meet some of Canada's good guys.
PLAIN2013.org has all the details, but the topics below will be of special interest:
One of the PLAIN2013 sessions will be an interactive workshop about how graphic stories can create an accessible plain language model to share concepts, information, and narratives.
The session will be moderated by Penny Goldsmith from PovNet ("Humanizing Technology: the PovNet Story") and feature graphic story authors David Wong ("Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America" and Sarah Leavitt ("Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer's, my Mother and Me").
News and Info
SI = Speaker Interviews