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Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand (webinar takeaways)

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand (webinar takeaways)

8 minute read

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand (webinar takeaways)

8 minute read

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand (webinar takeaways)

Paige Toomes

Copywriter and Digital Marketer

Deborah Bosley, Ph.D. is Founder of The Plain Language Group, LLC. and an international expert in plain language. She helps companies and universities increase trust and make content clear. Deborah has worked with the Office of the President for the University of California for several years as well as UNC Charlotte, and others.

Deborah has also written about the lack of clarity in higher ed content for Inside Higher Ed and The Atlantic. She has been interviewed by Investment News, The Wall Street Journal Morning Radio, Time Magazine, and Employee Benefit News, among others.

Needless to say, Deborah is an expert in this topic. This is a summary of the original higher education webinar on plain language that she presented, explaining how universities can create policies, disclosures and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty and the public to understand.

Policy documents

Deborah was also a tenure professor for 25 years so not only does she know the topic of plain language but she understands the overcomplexity that occurs in higher ed environments in the US, and elsewhere. It’s a system bound by tradition and ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,' piling new information into old systems and existing documents.

Policy statements from universities often are walls of text, using long words, a high reading level, and lists separated with semicolons (rather than bullet points). The writer expects the reader to do all of the work. How does it make you feel? People do read with their emotions. We are having emotional reactions to everything we read. We can feel confused or annoyed at text that isn’t immediately easy to read.

Agenda

Here is the agenda for the webinar, and what we'll cover in the summary:

  1. What is plain language?
  2. How do you think about your brand?
  3. What are the plain language strategies?
  4. How do regulations affect your brand?

What is plain language?

Plain language is the use of proven writing and designing strategies that make it easy for the intended audience to find, understand, and use content. To pick out two keywords from this definition would be:

  • Proven. There's empirical evidence to show the writing and design strategises talked about in the webinar actually work.

  • Intended audience. When professors are writing academic articles, academics are talking to other academics in their field so in that case complexity makes sense. But, in a university you are often writing for people who are not academic.

People want to find the info quickly, understand it and then use it. The three Cs at the heart of plain language are:  

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Credible

Simplicity isn’t easy

Let’s all agree that it’s difficult to be simple. Plain language is not:

  • Dumbing down. Of course it’s not. It’s really about wising up. Many of us spend time trying to understand information that is complex.
  • Changing meaning. One of the guidelines of plain language is to simplify but maintain meaning. It’s difficult to do.
  • Subverting legality.  At least in the US there have been many cases where companies and universities have been sued or contracts avoided due to documents being difficult to understand.

Plain language really will build your brand

There's empirical evidence that plain language helps to build your brand and:

  • Builds and increases trust
  • Saves time and money
  • Is more efficient
  • Meets regulatory requirements
  • Makes life easier

How do you think about your brand?

How do we think about branding? What is the human response to a brand itself? It can make us feel angry or annoyed, ‘meh’ indifferent or it can make us advocates and happy to be associated with that brand. As we said earlier, we read with our emotions.

Every piece of content and communication to your intended audience is your brand. Deborah has actually written an article on this for our blog. Every interaction that a student or the public or faculty or staff or administrators have with their own university either attracts or detracts from your brand.

Universities need to have core values and show ethical behaviour; integrity and trust, leadership, value etc. The kinds of content that shows this is things like privacy policies, terms and conditions, employee benefits etc - so not just the obvious stuff.

Who are you writing for?

There are generally four key intended audiences for higher education:

  • The public. People who show up to public offerings but aren’t enrolled.
  • Students / parents. Along with students having trouble understanding policies, a lot of students may be the first in their family to go to college, and so their parents may have difficulty too.
  • Faculty. People who have to follow policies around benefits, health insurance, classroom behaviour etc.
  • Staff / Administration. We all want to ‘get in, get it, and get out’ when we are reading a document. We don’t want to spend too much time understanding documents.

Policies or statements that are vague or use words that students don’t understand are failing those students.

Common higher ed documents

Here are some common higher ed documents that are traditionally full of jargon, but should really be written in plain, easy to understand language:

  • Policies and Procedures
  • Explanation of Benefits
  • Financial Aid
  • Technology

Managing these documents is about people, processes and technology. And often, universities change technology vendors a lot, meaning there's always a whole new set of technologies that faculty, staff and students need to understand and learn how to use.

Findings from an analysis of procedures and policies documents

An analysis by The Plain Language Group of documents coming out of universities found:

  • Long sentences (40+ words)
  • Dense paragraphs (up to 5 sentences is recommended)
  • Unclear instructions and process
  • Wordy, jargon-filled
  • Unhelpful, unfriendly
  • Too few headings and lists
  • Illogically organised
  • Poor visual appeal
  • Not enough tables/visuals
  • Incomplete information
  • Inconsistency

This is a long list! It's important to not get caught up in trying to sound smart, and focus on user and reader needs. It’s important to try and get across a friendly personality through writing (which might not come out in traditionally dry syllabus material). It’s important to be and to be encouraging to students and advocating for students to be better, rather than just a set of rules on how they could fail.

This is also relevant when you’re sending emails. It’s important to use a clear, attractive subject line and headings and subheadings, and organise information in the way best suited to the audience and in a way that is not too taxing for your audience. If you’re giving instructions, make sure it is crystal clear. When people come to find information, if it looks easy they are more likely to read it. It sounds obvious, but so many institutions get this wrong.

What are the plain language strategies?

There are lots of things you can be doing to transform your documentation into easy to read, digestible, plain language formats. Some examples are:

  • Consider audience(s) & purpose(s)
  • Be helpful & human (tone)
  • Eliminate 30% of the words without losing meaning
  • Get to the point
  • Avoid jargon
  • Use active voice, headings/lists, positive language
  • Use visuals
  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs
  • Test your content and get feedback from your intended audience

Student/parent, faculty and staff headaches

Some application documents are 80 pages long, and so many students don't go to college because they can't’ fill out application and other documentations. This is a serious problem and it isn't doing any good for the brand of universities and for parents and students. And then some research guidelines and policies for faculty members and staff are equally dense, unattractive difficult to follow and understand - some using things like double negatives.

Often, really important information gets lost in dense documents, which is no good for anyone. The Plain Language Group have cleaned up and done a rewrite of some of these types of documents to make them easier to skim and scan, which are given as examples and deconstructed in the full webinar.

How do regulations affect your brand?

In the US, there are a lot of regulations that universities need to be aware of and follow. These start with federal and state laws, then you go to university-wide policies, operational policies, faculty, staff and student handbooks. Then you go down into divisions and departments etc etc.

There are lots of regulations that require plain language. Some of these are:

  • GDPR (although this is an 'EU' law, it still applies to UK and most US institutions, including those doing business in the EU)
  • HIPAA (health privacy)
  • ERISA (benefits)
  • Dodd-Frank (finance and student loans)
  • Plain Writing Act of 2010
  • US Department of Education
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • HECA

Remember, it’s all about your brand

You want your policies and procedures to be consistent, and look the same across different departments, so people are used to what they look like and readers build a framework to read and go through these policies. A good starting point for this is to get a style guide, and make sure people follow it.

Revisions of documents is never over; it's an ongoing process. Deborah uses lots of examples and deconstructions of policy documents in the full webinar, and shows how The Plain Language Group helped to make these more user-friendly, understandable and easy to digest. Also check out plain language government guidelines.

Creating content is all about people, processes and technology. To find out how GatherContent can help higher ed with their content creation, management and delivery, with style guides and templates embedded into the editing environment, go to our higher education industry page. GatherContent helps organisations with productivity, quality and compliance in their content.

Deborah Bosley, Ph.D. is Founder of The Plain Language Group, LLC. and an international expert in plain language. She helps companies and universities increase trust and make content clear. Deborah has worked with the Office of the President for the University of California for several years as well as UNC Charlotte, and others.

Deborah has also written about the lack of clarity in higher ed content for Inside Higher Ed and The Atlantic. She has been interviewed by Investment News, The Wall Street Journal Morning Radio, Time Magazine, and Employee Benefit News, among others.

Needless to say, Deborah is an expert in this topic. This is a summary of the original higher education webinar on plain language that she presented, explaining how universities can create policies, disclosures and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty and the public to understand.

Policy documents

Deborah was also a tenure professor for 25 years so not only does she know the topic of plain language but she understands the overcomplexity that occurs in higher ed environments in the US, and elsewhere. It’s a system bound by tradition and ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,' piling new information into old systems and existing documents.

Policy statements from universities often are walls of text, using long words, a high reading level, and lists separated with semicolons (rather than bullet points). The writer expects the reader to do all of the work. How does it make you feel? People do read with their emotions. We are having emotional reactions to everything we read. We can feel confused or annoyed at text that isn’t immediately easy to read.

Agenda

Here is the agenda for the webinar, and what we'll cover in the summary:

  1. What is plain language?
  2. How do you think about your brand?
  3. What are the plain language strategies?
  4. How do regulations affect your brand?

What is plain language?

Plain language is the use of proven writing and designing strategies that make it easy for the intended audience to find, understand, and use content. To pick out two keywords from this definition would be:

  • Proven. There's empirical evidence to show the writing and design strategises talked about in the webinar actually work.

  • Intended audience. When professors are writing academic articles, academics are talking to other academics in their field so in that case complexity makes sense. But, in a university you are often writing for people who are not academic.

People want to find the info quickly, understand it and then use it. The three Cs at the heart of plain language are:  

  • Clear
  • Concise
  • Credible

Simplicity isn’t easy

Let’s all agree that it’s difficult to be simple. Plain language is not:

  • Dumbing down. Of course it’s not. It’s really about wising up. Many of us spend time trying to understand information that is complex.
  • Changing meaning. One of the guidelines of plain language is to simplify but maintain meaning. It’s difficult to do.
  • Subverting legality.  At least in the US there have been many cases where companies and universities have been sued or contracts avoided due to documents being difficult to understand.

Plain language really will build your brand

There's empirical evidence that plain language helps to build your brand and:

  • Builds and increases trust
  • Saves time and money
  • Is more efficient
  • Meets regulatory requirements
  • Makes life easier

How do you think about your brand?

How do we think about branding? What is the human response to a brand itself? It can make us feel angry or annoyed, ‘meh’ indifferent or it can make us advocates and happy to be associated with that brand. As we said earlier, we read with our emotions.

Every piece of content and communication to your intended audience is your brand. Deborah has actually written an article on this for our blog. Every interaction that a student or the public or faculty or staff or administrators have with their own university either attracts or detracts from your brand.

Universities need to have core values and show ethical behaviour; integrity and trust, leadership, value etc. The kinds of content that shows this is things like privacy policies, terms and conditions, employee benefits etc - so not just the obvious stuff.

Who are you writing for?

There are generally four key intended audiences for higher education:

  • The public. People who show up to public offerings but aren’t enrolled.
  • Students / parents. Along with students having trouble understanding policies, a lot of students may be the first in their family to go to college, and so their parents may have difficulty too.
  • Faculty. People who have to follow policies around benefits, health insurance, classroom behaviour etc.
  • Staff / Administration. We all want to ‘get in, get it, and get out’ when we are reading a document. We don’t want to spend too much time understanding documents.

Policies or statements that are vague or use words that students don’t understand are failing those students.

Common higher ed documents

Here are some common higher ed documents that are traditionally full of jargon, but should really be written in plain, easy to understand language:

  • Policies and Procedures
  • Explanation of Benefits
  • Financial Aid
  • Technology

Managing these documents is about people, processes and technology. And often, universities change technology vendors a lot, meaning there's always a whole new set of technologies that faculty, staff and students need to understand and learn how to use.

Findings from an analysis of procedures and policies documents

An analysis by The Plain Language Group of documents coming out of universities found:

  • Long sentences (40+ words)
  • Dense paragraphs (up to 5 sentences is recommended)
  • Unclear instructions and process
  • Wordy, jargon-filled
  • Unhelpful, unfriendly
  • Too few headings and lists
  • Illogically organised
  • Poor visual appeal
  • Not enough tables/visuals
  • Incomplete information
  • Inconsistency

This is a long list! It's important to not get caught up in trying to sound smart, and focus on user and reader needs. It’s important to try and get across a friendly personality through writing (which might not come out in traditionally dry syllabus material). It’s important to be and to be encouraging to students and advocating for students to be better, rather than just a set of rules on how they could fail.

This is also relevant when you’re sending emails. It’s important to use a clear, attractive subject line and headings and subheadings, and organise information in the way best suited to the audience and in a way that is not too taxing for your audience. If you’re giving instructions, make sure it is crystal clear. When people come to find information, if it looks easy they are more likely to read it. It sounds obvious, but so many institutions get this wrong.

What are the plain language strategies?

There are lots of things you can be doing to transform your documentation into easy to read, digestible, plain language formats. Some examples are:

  • Consider audience(s) & purpose(s)
  • Be helpful & human (tone)
  • Eliminate 30% of the words without losing meaning
  • Get to the point
  • Avoid jargon
  • Use active voice, headings/lists, positive language
  • Use visuals
  • Write short sentences and short paragraphs
  • Test your content and get feedback from your intended audience

Student/parent, faculty and staff headaches

Some application documents are 80 pages long, and so many students don't go to college because they can't’ fill out application and other documentations. This is a serious problem and it isn't doing any good for the brand of universities and for parents and students. And then some research guidelines and policies for faculty members and staff are equally dense, unattractive difficult to follow and understand - some using things like double negatives.

Often, really important information gets lost in dense documents, which is no good for anyone. The Plain Language Group have cleaned up and done a rewrite of some of these types of documents to make them easier to skim and scan, which are given as examples and deconstructed in the full webinar.

How do regulations affect your brand?

In the US, there are a lot of regulations that universities need to be aware of and follow. These start with federal and state laws, then you go to university-wide policies, operational policies, faculty, staff and student handbooks. Then you go down into divisions and departments etc etc.

There are lots of regulations that require plain language. Some of these are:

  • GDPR (although this is an 'EU' law, it still applies to UK and most US institutions, including those doing business in the EU)
  • HIPAA (health privacy)
  • ERISA (benefits)
  • Dodd-Frank (finance and student loans)
  • Plain Writing Act of 2010
  • US Department of Education
  • Federal Trade Commission
  • HECA

Remember, it’s all about your brand

You want your policies and procedures to be consistent, and look the same across different departments, so people are used to what they look like and readers build a framework to read and go through these policies. A good starting point for this is to get a style guide, and make sure people follow it.

Revisions of documents is never over; it's an ongoing process. Deborah uses lots of examples and deconstructions of policy documents in the full webinar, and shows how The Plain Language Group helped to make these more user-friendly, understandable and easy to digest. Also check out plain language government guidelines.

Creating content is all about people, processes and technology. To find out how GatherContent can help higher ed with their content creation, management and delivery, with style guides and templates embedded into the editing environment, go to our higher education industry page. GatherContent helps organisations with productivity, quality and compliance in their content.

Webinar Recording

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand

Watch this webinar to learn how to create information about your university that is clear, concise, and credible. Including: how to create policies, disclosures, and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty, or the public to understand.

June 4, 2020

4:00 pm

Register now

Webinar Recording

Clarity in Higher Education: Every written word represents your brand

Watch this webinar to learn how to create information about your university that is clear, concise, and credible. Including: how to create policies, disclosures, and other non-marketing content that is easy for students, faculty, or the public to understand.

June 4, 2020

4:00 pm

Watch now
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About the author

Paige Toomes

Paige is an English Literature and Media graduate from Newcastle University, and over the last three years has built up a career in SEO-driven copywriting for tech companies. She has written for Microsoft, Symantec and LinkedIn, as well as other SaaS companies and IT consulting firms. With an audience-focused approach to content, Paige handles the lifecycle from creation through to measurement, supporting businesses with their content operations.

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