Holy cow….do you know the U.S. Government made a course about basic copywriting? They call this using “Plain Language.”
This course was created by the Federal Aviation Administration, the part of the government in charge of all civil aviation (if you’ve ever flown on a plane, much of your flight from air traffic control to safety procedures to maintenance standards have been dictated by the FAA).
Because they deal in such a life-or-death industry, the FAA wants people to speak in PLAIN LANGUAGE that isn’t confusing. This is similar to why people in marketing want to have “Plain Language” copywriting also. Our job isn’t to impress people with how smart our language looks, it’s to show someone why they should buy a product.
You can see the full FAA course here:
Federal Aviation Administration Plain Language Course.
…however, some browsers will have to download special plugins to view these videos, so we’ve reposted them here for the general public on YouTube (under Public Domain policy).
Part 1: Intro – What is plain language?
Dr. Bruce Corsino is in charge of making “Plain Language” readily available to all government agencies. Any government agency can contact him to make a special video course on how they can use Plain Language in their own agency.
Objectives of this course:
- Define Plain Language.
- Plain vs. Non-Plain Language
- Laws and Policies
What is Plain Language?
Plain Language is about helping your users with these 3 things:
▶ Find what they need.
▶ Understand what they find the FIRST time they read or hear it.
▶ Use what they find to meet their needs.
Plain Language is not about what you write, but what your reader understands.
“Challenge Every Word.”
If you have 150 words, you probably don’t need 50 of them. Get rid of them!
Part 2: Why use plain language
Even people from ancient history valued keeping things short. Plain Language is not a new idea.
Why use Plain Language? Because it:
▶ Saves time, staff, and money.
▶ Improves compliance.
▶ Affects customer satisfaction.
▶ Prevents lawsuits.
▶ Saves lives.
▶ Policy, law, and a civil right
Example of The Department of Veteran Affairs:
They got over 1,000 calls from confused customers on a letter. With a new “Plain Language” re-written letter, they only got 192 calls.
Example of Aviation Safety:
In a study called “Language Errors in Aviation Maintenance” showed people in other countries were making mistakes on aviation maintenance, because the manual used too much confusing language.
They found the average reading comprehension level across the world was only a 5th grade reading level. So they implemented a rule where they only use words from the World Wide Simplified Technical Standard which uses a total of only 800 common English words.
Example of the Challenger Space Shuttle Explosion:
NASA found the problem was caused by communication issues between engineering departments. One of the engineering teams knew the O-rings would fail under 32 degrees, but those notes and memos were so poorly communicated, that information never got to the right places.
Part 3: Plain language law and tool kit
2010 Federal Plain Writing Act:
Signed into law October 16th, 2010. It states that:
▶ Every federal agency must train employees in the practice of writing in Plain Language.
▶ You must insure each document you issue or revise complies with the Federal Plain Language Guidelines.
▶ Every federal agency must make a Plain Language guide website.
▶ You must appoint a Plain Language official who can report on the progress of this effort.
▶ You must report every year to Congress what you’ve done to comply with the Federal Plain Writing Act.
Part 4: Plain language format tools
Common format tools to make things into Plain Language:
- Headings: Clearly explain something in one heading.
- Bullet Lists: Can make large amounts of text into easy to read bullet points.
- Illustrations: Some things are easier to convey with an illustration.
- Q&A Formats: Make an easy commonly asked questions section.
- Blank Space: Don’t needlessly fill up the page making it difficult to read.
The United States Postal Service made an easy-to-read postcard to inform people of what suspicious mail looks like to avoid further anthrax attacks.
Another common useful tool is tables. One agency turned this big and ugly and confusing block of text like this…
…into an easy table like this:
Tables can help to clarify and organize lots of information.
Part 5: Plain language word tools
Word tools include:
- Everyday words
- Active voice sentences
- “Must” vs “Shall”
Everyday Words: Taking confusing phrases and making them easy, like this:
“Due to the fact” = Because.
“In the event of” = If.
“Has the capability to” = Can.
“Utilize” = Use.
“Promulgate” = Issue.
“Implement” = Start.
Free Your Verbs: Just use easy verbs to replace phrases, like:
“Give a description of” = Describe.
“Provide assistance with” = Help.
“Do the construction of” = Build.
Part 6: Pronouns and Active Voice
Pronouns: “We”, “She”, “It”, “They.”
Using pronouns can make language easier. For example, here is a sentence without pronouns:
Here’s the same instructions with 5 pronouns, and much easier to understand:
Part 7: Review and Games
This video extensively (aka it’s kinda boring) goes over some examples of using Active vs Passive pronouns.
Part 8: Final exam part A
No! It’s too complex.
Do you think THIS is Plain Language?
No! It should be more like:
“You must not use elevators if there is an emergency.”
Part 9: Final exam part B
A test to see if we can make complex instructions easier to understand.
Plain Language way:
Plain Language could have saved the Challenger Space Shuttle from exploding at launch if some crucial memo’s were written in Plain Language:
Hopefully these Plain Language writing techniques can help your audience understand things much better.
FAA Plain Language PDF’s
When us marketers are using copywriting, it’s often NOT a matter of life and death.
But with government agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration, small miscommunications can result in huge disasters, and therefore Plain Language is extremely important. Hopefully this helps!
Neville N. Medhora – Kopywriting Kourse
P.S. Here’s some more writing resources:
- Government Plain Language Summit Full Recording
- U.S. Army staff officer writing training
- Copywriting Examples
- More Copywriting Videos
- What Is Copywriting?
- Watch all these videos in a single playlist
P.S. Please share this link with anyone who could benefit from this government writing course: