Major kudos to the White House for using pop culture, a clear graph, the power of animation, and plain language to explain economic policy on its blog.
Here’s the caption that the White House included with the above graph:
You’ve probably heard of The Great Gatsby. But what about The Great Gatsby Curve?
It’s a pretty wonky chart that illustrates how rising inequality is jeopardizing our tradition of economic mobility for future generations.
So what does this mean? Kids of wealthy parents already have more opportunities to succeed than children of poor families—and this is likely to get worse unless we take steps to ensure that all children have access to quality education, health care, and other opportunities that give them a fair shot at economic success.
This post reveals the respect that the White House new media team has for its audience. They’ve shown that they’re not afraid to explain complex topics, and that they’ll use the right tools to be clear and easy to understand. They’re not talking down to anyone. They’re not scaring anyone. Rather, they’re trying to edify.
A recent XKCD webcomic shared the new reality of social communications from political figures:
Summary: Tweeting a complete, grammatically correct sentence makes you sound like a teenager, while texting abbreviations and poor grammar make you sound like a senator.
The (presumably fictional, but familiar) senator was being brief, a hallmark of messages on Twitter. Unfortunately, it fails the more important test of all communication: clarity. Some readers have no trouble parsing text-speak, but it’s an impediment for most.
Editing a short message can take time and talent. For example, a recent tweet from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy takes some work to clean up:
An #iotd for our #TOTD RT @nasa: [Image of the Day] Bolden, Musk and the Dragon http://go.nasa.gov/Ku00nJ #iotd
As another tweet commented later: “It took 15 Web clicks to find out what one acronym meant. How many clicks would you make before giving up?” A version withought the acronym challenge is possible, though:
An image of the day for our thought of the day: @NASA Administrator Bolden, Elon Musk and the Dragon http://go.nasa.gov/Ku00nJ #TOTD #iotd
Only 134 characters to say the same thing clearly, including additional context and both hashtags. That would have been a mess if expanded automatically, though; it takes effort to tease out the important words, add context, and trim away the excess.
Luckily for writers, the federal Plain Language website provides guidelines for clear writing, including reasons to encourage it and a fascinating list of quotes. (The title of this post is an old adage from that list.)
Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated simple, awesomely simple, that’s creativity.
– Charles Mingus
Even if you’re a master of plain-language writing in print or on websites, here are a few guidelines of my own for using plain language in social media:
- As with any jargon, use hashtags sparingly. They help tie a group of messages together (at a conference, for example), but don’t use them for every #noun in your #message. #Seriously.
- Avoid abbreviations and texting-speak. Social media uses a lot of slang, but clear, plain language is still the norm.
- Links provide details, but you provide context. A link by itself is an empty message.
- Write and edit a social-media message just like any other text: complete the thought first, then edit down to size.
- Save characters by removing calls to action. “Click here”, “please share this”, and “like us” are less important than your message.
In this era of shrinking government, advocates of plain writing say their cause can actually save money.
They cite Washington state’s “Plain Talk” program: A revamped letter tripled the number of businesses paying a commonly ignored use tax, bringing $2 million in new revenue in a year, according to law professor Joseph Kimble, author of a forthcoming book on the benefits of plain language.
And after the Department of Veterans Affairs revised one of its letters, calls to a regional call center dropped from about 1,100 a year to about 200, Kimble said.
“People complain about government red tape and getting government out of your hair,” said Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), House sponsor of the Plain Writing Act. “If every one of these forms was written in plain language, the number of contacts to federal agencies would plummet.” He’s started a “Stop B.S.” (for “Bureaucrat Speak”) campaign soliciting examples of badly written public documents.