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Why we use plain English

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Accessibility, culture

As the DfE Digital Community Lead I see lots of people’s writing. In our team one of the things we often find ourselves saying to colleagues is, "Can you describe that in a simpler way?"

Partly this is about clear thinking and good writing, but it also tells a wider story of where we want to get to as an organisation. In this post I'll explain why we think speaking and writing in plain English is so important.

It's not just about digital

At DfE Digital and Transformation we want to make end-to-end services that work well for the user and the best way of doing this is to work in multidisciplinary teams. Typically in these teams there's a rich mix of highly skilled digital professionals as well as people with educational or behavioural expertise who are not familiar with digital terminology.

When we say "write it like you'd say it" to people who want to blog about their work, this will depend on who they're talking to. For us, the 'who' is often non-digital audiences for whom phrases like 'agile' or 'icebox' may not hold the same meaning they do for a delivery manager or a technical architect.

By using simpler, less exclusive language, we have more fruitful collaboration. It also means the stories we tell about our work are far more accessible and easier to understand for our audiences both inside and outside of DfE.

By communicating with more people, we can attract better people

Using plain, clear language helps us reflect and articulate our culture of openness. It also widens the pool of people who read about our work and take an interest in our blog posts and job adverts. Through this wider audience we can find, recruit, and inspire others to join DfE and help build excellent services.

DfE Digital and Transformation is growing and we advertise new roles each week. We’re looking for people in junior and apprentice positions, as well as fast stream candidates. Some of them won’t have digital skills, but we still need their expertise. The onus is on us to keep our language as easy to grasp as possible. We don’t want to put potential candidates off applying for jobs by using words or terms they may not understand.

This approach has worked before. The GOV.UK blogging platform took off in 2012 and the Government Digital Service's policy of working in the open using clear and simple language attracted a wide audience.

As more and more people in departments started blogging, readers saw blog posts as a window into government. They could read about how teams worked, how they did user research, the thinking behind their designs, and how they approached running and iterating services. It helped bring talent into product and service teams.

Accessible by principle

In government, we have a duty to make our work accessible to everyone and for good reason. As some have said before it isn't dumbing down, it's opening up.

As our director Emma Stace blogged recently, the focus of transformation should be on how we work. This means thinking about how we communicate and our choice of language.

Keeping readers engaged

Usually at the end of a blog post, we ask readers to do something such as get in touch, apply for a role, or sign up to take part in user research. Therefore it's important to us they read to the end of the post. By using niche words or terms, we run the risk of putting them off and losing them - after all, there’s a lot of other content competing for their attention.

Similarly, across our department there are many civil servants unfamiliar with what a 'discovery' is or what happens at an 'agile ceremony'. We want to share our stories and the lessons we’ve learnt along the way with those people too.

By leaving digital jargon out of our blog posts and using less exclusive language people are more likely to continue reading, without us running the risk of losing digital specialists more familiar with digital terms.

That's both accessible and inclusive.

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  1. Comment by Jenny Mulholland posted on

    Nice article, with clear reasoning.

    One piece of feedback - you've tantalisingly mentioned a few terms like 'agile', 'icebox' and 'discovery', noting that people may not understand their technical usage in a digital context.

    It might be helpful to readers to provide some quick explainers of the technical meanings of those terms at the end of the article, so you don't leave your audience wondering!

    • Replies to Jenny Mulholland>

      Comment by Nettie Williams posted on

      Hello and yes good point. We've put some links in that people may find helpful. Thanks for the prompt.