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Veteran Journalist Cokie Roberts Lauds 'Plain Language'
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Mark E. Waldo, Jr.
On the Front Page...
Although the origin of the "K.I.S.S. principle" may be in debate, most professional communicators can agree with its curt advice: "Keep It Simple, Stupid." That guiding principle, adopted government-wide several years ago under the federal Plain Language Initiative, was once again celebrated at NIH on Apr. 23 with an awards ceremony honoring writers, editors and other communicators whose products hit the mark.
For the third straight year, NIH invited a highly regarded journalist to share the occasion and offer helpful hints for communicating well. For the first time this year, however, NIH got two for one not only a professional's perspective on how it should be done, but also a consumer's view of how well we've done.
Completely overhauling the way federal employees communicate is not an easy undertaking, explained Karen O'Steen, director of NIH's Executive Secretariat and chair of the NIH plain language coordinating committee. But the effort was necessary.
"The traditional way of writing government documents just hasn't served us very well," she said. "Too often it's produced complicated, jargon-filled documents that have resulted in confusion, frustration and a complete lack of trust between citizens and their government. As a result, several years ago 'Plain Language' emerged as a government-wide initiative to improve our communication with the public, other government agencies and with each other."
NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni, who has made communication a top priority at NIH and who has promoted efforts to make the agency as transparent as possible to the people it serves, acknowledged the double challenge of simplifying both government and science issues.
"It's hard enough to communicate science," he said. "To make government speak clearly in the context of an agency that also does science must require twice as much effort. One of the most difficult things I've found in my career is to convey science in simple terms, because we tend to have jargon. We tend to use jargon across the sort of elite group that train together and conduct science together. All of sudden we forget that we're doing science for the people. We forget that communicating the science to the people does require effort."
The special hurdles NIH communicators must overcome were referred to humorously by O'Steen: "Only at NIH would one of the top-ranked plain language products be a CD-ROM on demonstrating rodent surgery. It contains crystal clear instructions on performing surgery in a manner that won't cause undue harm to a mouse or rat, and even comes with a practice device to master suturing techniques."
Even with the additional challenges, NIH communication specialists have found numerous plain-spoken ways to rise to the top, Zerhouni said. He noted that the NIH web site frequently receives the most traffic of all federal web sites, and that about 5 million visits per month are recorded on the site. People are very hungry for information about health, he observed.
"We want to congratulate all of you for your efforts," Zerhouni added. "I don't believe you can communicate something you don't really understand well. In fact, the simplicity and clarity with which you communicate are testaments to how well you understand the science you are supposed to communicate."
A longtime chief congressional analyst for ABC News and syndicated columnist for National Public Radio, Roberts said she recently had the opportunity to write about an unfamiliar topic, a scientific issue the completion of the Human Genome Project. She said she had accumulated several articles and other information on the subject, including a press release from the National Human Genome Research Institute. Contrasting the release with a New York Times article, Roberts said although the topic itself was in general a difficult one to grasp, NHGRI's material was much easier for the lay community to understand.
"It is useful to write about things outside of your field," she recommended. "You realize that any words you don't know, probably nobody else does either. The problem is when you're writing in your own field. You don't always have that understanding. It is true that whenever you're writing about a subject you know well, you fall into familiar jargon."
Many fields have their own language that often proves to be impenetrable to people who are not devotees, she explained. Consider sports, she quipped. "I can read whole articles and not understand very much at all."
Roberts shared a rule of thumb about employing words and special terms.
"If you have to look it up," she said, "don't use it. That's a very good rule." Of course, there are times when such unfamiliar language is necessary, she said, particularly in science and health. Then, it's up to a good writer to explain the terms clearly and put the material in context for the consumer.
Roberts also referred to an important component of good writing and of history that the Age of Computers has made nearly obsolete. The backspace key has virtually eliminated our ability as writers to review our first attempts, and save for posterity the successive attempts to improve our products.
"We've lost a lot for history in first drafts," she said. "[For example] we have the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and we see how Thomas Jefferson scratched through or changed words to have a different meaning or to say it in a more precise fashion. We've lost all of that with the computer, because we're always just hitting the delete button and typing over what we've already done."
Finally, Roberts said, good communicators are disciplined. They know not to dump mounds of data on readers. Regardless of the tremendous amount of fact-collection that communicators may do before they actually write anything, she said, consumers rely on good writers to stick to their principle, the K.I.S.S. principle.
Concluded Roberts: "I often see the discipline to start writing as the thing that separates neophyte writers from professional writers. You keep wanting to learn more. You don't have the confidence to stop researching and start writing. You don't have to tell us everything you learned, you just have to tell us what's important about what you learned. That's where clarity becomes so important and simplicity is key."
More than 270 products were nominated for this year's Plain Language awards, which were presented in three categories superior, outstanding and honorable mention. To view the full list of honorees online, visit http://execsec.od.nih.gov/plainlang/awards/current/honoring.html.
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