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Vol. LX, No. 10
May 16, 2008
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NIH Celebrates Plain Language with Stories, Awards

Keynote speaker, renowned storyteller Jon Spelman, urged writers to “make stories out of pictures to connect with the imagination.”
Keynote speaker, renowned storyteller Jon Spelman, urged writers to “make stories out of pictures to connect with the imagination.”

It was a happy coincidence. On Apr. 15, when the Plain Language Bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a 376-1 vote, NIH celebrated its own Plain Language initiative with an annual award ceremony and reception. This marked the eighth year of the initiative at NIH.

“Part of democracy,” said NIH director Dr. Elias Zerhouni in introductory remarks, “is to have as many people as possible understand what we’re doing with their dollars. The core message is that unless you communicate your vision in a way that’s clear and complete, it’s basically a non-vision.”

It’s especially important in writing about science, he said, to make sure your patients don’t feel like strangers.

“NIH is at the top of its game in communicating complex topics,” Zerhouni said.

Keynote speaker, renowned storyteller Jon Spelman, urged writers to “make stories out of pictures to connect with the imagination. All stories are personal; it’s important to have empathy for that.”

The “simple, technical answer,” he noted, is “to use simple action words as much as you can.” He illustrated with folk tales and a few yarns of his own.

John Burklow, NIH associate director for communications and public liaison, presented a special award of appreciation to PL initiative volunteers Ann Brewer, Emily Carson, Mollie Fletcher and Susan Persons.

Burklow’s deputy Dr. Marin Allen announced the awards. Zerhouni presented certificates to staff from 16 institutes/centers and 4 program offices. Judged from 163 entries, 62 awards went out to NIH’ers, some as individuals and some as teams. The spread, borrowing from Olympic-style awards, was 12 gold, 25 silver and 25 bronze.

There was an abundant variety of products: web sites, reference tools, recipes, a bilingual fotonovela (an illustrated storybook), fact sheets, news, features, press releases, booklets, podcasts, guides for clinical therapies, toolkits, email newsletters, brochures, panel reports, posters, nurses’ care guides and a memorandum of understanding.

There was even a budget statement.

The award brochure itself, an 8-by-8-inch specimen of readability, was peppered with “quotation inspiration” such as this nugget by Dr. Paul (Wyn) Jennings, the National Science Foundation’s program director of graduate research traineeships: “The grant proposals that are well written are usually the ones that get the checks.”

And this one hit home: “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” NIHRecord Icon

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