Clarity for All: Every Written Word Represents Your Brand

Communicating plainly with faculty and staff saves time, money and frustration.

December 15, 2015

“Per ISO/IEC 27002, in order to achieve and maintain appropriate protection of university assets, all assets should be accounted for and have a nominated owner. The implementation of controls and responsibilities may be delegated by the owner as appropriate; however, the owner remains ultimately responsible for asset protection. In order to ensure that information receives an appropriate level of protection, it should be classified in terms of legal requirements, value, criticality and sensitivity to unauthorized disclosure or modification.”

I expect 99.9% of the public wouldn’t understand this information on a university website explaining (I think) that the owner of content on a website is responsible for that content. I bet you thought “assets” meant “money,” but this information comes from the IT unit. “Assets” means web content. To be fair, the intended audience likely is IT people, so perhaps the language is appropriate for them. Perhaps. 

However (you knew there was “however” coming, right?), what most universities fail to realize is that ALL written university information is a form of marketing or branding. Whether someone is reading financial aid information (potential students), travel policies (faculty), employee benefits (staff/faculty), or classroom syllabi (students), every written word helps brand your university as welcoming, trustworthy, and easy to navigate. Or not.

Remember the last time you tried to interpret complex information? How did you feel? Here’s the thing: people read with their emotions then use logic and data to justify their decisions. Development and marketing professionals want alumni, students, and the public to love and support their university. Clear, colorful brochures, photos showing diversity, quotes from students, newsletters, catalogues are not enough. Those are “sales” materials. We all expect those to be easy to understand. But internal and external readers have to be able to understand all the information that is generated by a university.  

I was a tenured professor for 25 years. I can’t remember a single time when I received clear, concise information about my benefits, the university’s strategic plans, updates to policies, etc. when I said: “Gosh, I wish they had not “dumbed down” this information.” No one ever complained that information about or by a university was too easy to understand. In my 15 years as a plain language consultant, I’ve often had to explain to university administrators that working and writing for a university doesn’t mean you have to make information as complicated as possible. Au contraire. None of us had the time, energy, nor interest to “translate” complex academic language.

Kristine Maloney, in her recent article Clear, Concise Writing: It’s the Law (Seriously) focused on this question: Why can’t professors write about their research in a clear manner that makes it accessible to the general public? I’m advocating for an answer to this question: “Why can’t university administrators write information for faculty and staff that makes it easy for them to understand and take action?  Well, there are a lot of answers to those two questions, but a few universities “get it” and have taken steps to integrate plain language principles and practices into their administrative written communication. Here are examples of why it’s critical for universities to be clear and concise:

1. Improving internal communication saves time and money
The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is the third or fourth (depends on who’s counting) university in the NC system. Beth Hardin, Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs, developed a multi-year plan to improve communication. “The first - and most important - component was to improve the communication capacity of the dozens of key staff across the division” she said. She believes that the plain language training she instituted “has had more impact than anything we have done.”  For example, faculty and staff could respond more easily to simpler, clearer communications, which meant fewer calls asking HR to clarify information. Less wasted time equals less wasted money.

2.  Improving written policies means easier compliance

One guiding principle of plain language and compliance material is that you can’t expect people to comply with policies they don’t understand. The University of California’s Office of the President wanted to make their policies and procedures clearer. As a part of the University policy review process, they provided plain language training to staff who would be working on updating and developing policies. Their goal was to write clear policies that avoided jargon and were transparent to both internal and external audiences.

3.  Improving communication with EFL or ESL students increases the quality of their education

The College of the North Atlantic – Qatar is a Canadian technical and vocational institute operating in the State of Qatar in the Middle East. Clear communication is critical because their internal and external stakeholders are non-native English speakers. The administration at CNA-Q made a commitment to increase access in all their written communication. During a plain language workshop, a math professor almost wept when he realized the punitive tone he was using in his rules for classroom behavior. “The paradox is that that’s not really who I am,” he said. He completely revised his syllabus to be easier to understand and much more helpful and friendly.

Every college and university might have different goals, but they all have this in common: the importance of making written communication easy to find, understand, and use. We all benefit from not being tortured by complex and confusing language.

Deborah S. Bosley is owner and principal of The Plain Language Group.

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