Plain Language and COVID-19

It’s always important to use plain language in communicating with your intended audience. But it’s even more critical when emotions are running high. That’s certainly the case during this COVID-19 crisis. So what can you do to ensure that you communicate in plain language during a time of trouble?

General guidance

Here are the basic rules to follow to ensure that you’re ready to apply plain language principles during a crisis:

Be prepared 

Be Prepared.png

Scar was right. (More about how this image relates to plain language later.)

You need to be properly trained to communicate via plain language before a crisis hits. It’s hard to learn any new skillset on the fly (though we can make it easier). 


Take advantage of customized training

Since extended in-person trainings are out of the question during a time when any moderately-sized gatherings are taboo, consider web-based trainings as an alternative. Even for groups that are swamped, it’s often possible to insert a lunch and learn training, or something similar. Be careful, though – not all in-person training translates well to webinars. You need to make sure the trainer is skilled in the online medium. And you should make sure the training relates specifically to the plain language issues you’re currently facing.


Review materials to ensure they comply

To stay sharp, you need to review your materials regularly to make sure overly complicated or unclear writing isn’t creeping in. In a crisis, you may not be able to review all your content, so make sure you’ve identified the most commonly used materials ahead of time.


Bring in some help

Okay, so maybe you can’t bring anyone in physically. But it’s important to have qualified plain language communicators on call when you do need some added plain language firepower.


Applying the principles

Now let’s look at how plain language principles apply during this crisis:


Write for your audience

This is really the core of all communication, right? But it’s even more critical right now. You may be creating content for a different audience now than you normally would. Even the regular users of your content may be in a more tense state than usual. That’s going to affect the information you present.


Organize the information

Do you understand the tasks that people who access your content are trying to complete? What questions might they have about COVID-19? Make sure you answer those questions specifically, up front.


Choose your words carefully

And images. For example, how many people recognize the image of Scar above, and the reference to the Lion King Disney movie? Probably most of you. But if you’re communicating information that will impact the health and safety of thousands or millions, you can’t afford to lose even 20% of your audience with an unclear cultural reference (I intentionally included the image above to illustrate this point).


Be concise

Users are almost always looking for specific information when they access your content. This is especially true for COVID-19 content. They’re trying to make important health decisions. No extra words, please.


Keep it conversational

This is a tricky one. As always, you should avoid writing to “sound smart”. But people aren’t looking for you to communicate about the crisis in wacky ways. Don’t outsmart yourself in how you present content, but it’s especially important to communicate in an orderly, distraction-free way.


Design for reading

In other words, convey your content in a way that people can find what they need quickly. Design so that they can find information right away. You can’t afford to focus on yourself.


Follow web standards

If your content is on the web, make sure you:

-Lead with the most important content

-Write in chunks

-Cut anything unnecessary

These guidelines are always important – parts are included in the guidelines above. But if you don’t follow these guidelines for crisis-related content, people will drop your site even more quickly than usual – perhaps never to return.


Test your assumptions

A wise software engineer once told me “The first version of anything stinks.” Unless you’ve put the information in front of real people who need it, there will be gaps and problems that you will not have anticipated ahead of time. So put your content in front of a small group of representative people whenever possible, before you release it to the general public (let us know if you need help with the logistics of gathering this feedback).

Going forward, make sure you provide a convenient feedback mechanism, so that people see right away how to contact you when something in your content doesn’t make sense to them.

Good luck, and stay safe!