Chas Savage recently spoke at a meeting of the Public Relations Institute of Australia. His topic was George Orwell, the readability of documents produced by Australian Government agencies and why readability and clarity are still important – and not solely of interest to the eccentric or the passionate specialist.
His thoughts are outlined below.
Tonight, I want to address the issues of the day.
Why clear writing is still important.
And how well do the agencies of the Australian Government write?
At the start here I take issue with George Orwell who in the opening lines of Politics and the English language growled that:
Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.
Our civilisation is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse.
It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.
My purpose tonight is rather to channel Orwell at the conclusion of this exact same essay, where he observed that the decadence of our language is probably curable.
I want to breathe hope into us as a group of professionals.
Not only should organisations produce clearer documents – write and speak more clearly.
But they must.
And they can.
All we need is a plan.
So, here are the proofs and here is the plan.
Along the way we’ll play a game, which will set up our next steps.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, around 14% of Australians read at the level of Year 6 or below.
30% read at the level of lower secondary school – years 7–10. Around 38% read at the level of upper secondary school – years 11 and 12. And 17% of Australians are top of the line and read at a post-secondary level.
The compelling point is 44% of Australians read to a year 10 level – or less.
The imperative is for governments to produce content and documents that are easily understood by citizens, by readers.
If we listen to our national leaders, we understand that accuracy, brevity and clarity aren’t virtues and that bombast from all points of the political compass is the order of the day.
Well, our job as professionals is to produce clear documents for two very good reasons.
The first is that clear documents save time, save money and save effort. Clear documents make lives easier for people.
Think about a large organisation that has citizens apply for services online. Think insurance, banking, government.
Say text and content is made really clear and citizens save time when receiving the advice they need. The gain then is simply a product of the number of people, the time they save and the value of their time.
Let’s say each year 1 million people save 30 minutes of their time and they value their time at $40 per hour. The total benefit is $20 million. In the bank for society.
The second reason is that clear documents save lives.
I’m not being over-dramatic here. Think of COVID-19. If government agencies spell out clearly and frankly why a vaccine is a good idea and vaccination rates increase and result in herd immunity, then we’ve saved lives.
Finally, if we produce clearer documents more efficiently then we become more efficient as teams and organisations. We release precious organisational time to do other valuable work.
We get better decisions; we manage risk more effectively; we solve problems.
Of course, I don’t pretend that this a cure for cancer; rather, clear documents result in easy wins which organisations, large and small, should all play for.
So what’s the state of play?
Ethos CRS recently analysed 136 documents produced by 35 Australian Government agencies. And we have published our results in The 2021 readability scorecard: Australian Government agencies.
Our goal was to assess how readable text was.
We were guided by principles outlined in the Australian Government Style Manual.
Content should be written in Plain English.
We should write to a year 7 reading level – a difficult challenge I know.
We write in the active voice.
Sentences should be short.
We choose the words that people understand.
Ethos CRS measured readability using the language analysis platform VisibleThread. We developed a readability score and scorecard using this data.
A document that hit target levels for school grade level, sentence length and use of the active voice earned a readability score of 100.
I’ve got to say that the results surprised us a little.
The average score for readability was not 90, 80, 70 or 60.
But 28.5 …
A readability score of 28.5 means that some, possibly many, readers will struggle to understand content – and we are not communicating as well as we should.
So what were the results of the readability scorecard?
The Australian Securities and Investments Commission produced a group of documents that had an average readability score of 34.5, earning the commission a gold medal.
Defence Housing Australia produced the best individual document which had a readability score of 50.8.
Some documents are written using the active voice.
Some documents are in the passive.
And some text or speech or content is just – well – passive aggressive.
For example if I use the passive voice to say, ‘Consideration should have been made to the timing of the meeting’ I leave unanswered reasonable questions about who considers, who is responsible, who is deciding and who is in charge.
The Australian Government Style Manual is categorical: use the active voice.
The question here then is: what is the yardstick? How much active voice is enough?
One Australian Government agency sets the standard that sentences should be active voice 80–90% of the time.
So which Australian Government agency came up smelling like roses in our scorecard survey?
On the top of the podium was the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources, which in the documents we surveyed, wrote in the active voice 85% of the time.
The average of all documents we examined in the scorecard survey was 75%, so practice varies hugely. Some departments and agencies are sad addicts to the passive.
It’s a simple rule for professional writers.
Short sentences are good.
Long sentences, however – and you know what I’m talking here, the sentences that drone on and on and which start off in one direction but which move up and down and left and right because we don’t really know what we wanted to say in the first instance and also because we hadn’t really thought about the point of writing in the second – are bad.
If you want to produce text that is readable write short sentences.
How short is short?
The Australian Government Style Manual recommends that sentences should have no more than 25 words.
Sentences are not bricks, of course, that are identical in shape and size. We vary sentence length to maintain interest and sustain cadence.
On average, in the documents Ethos CRS reviewed for the scorecard, more than 36% of sentences were longer than the recommended maximum.
The best document we examined was produced by Defence Housing Australia, which used long sentences only 22% of the time. Next came the Australian Taxation Office at 25.1% and hot on the heels of the ATO was Services Australia at 25.2%.
In the tenth decile, we identified departments and agencies that used long sentences almost half of the time. 45.7% of the sentences in these documents were longer than the Style Manual benchmark.
If you want to control ideas in text, then write short sentences. It’s a rule that’s easy to apply and easy to measure.
And the gains in readability are immediate, tangible and sustainable.
As well as our document survey, we undertook case studies of 2 large agency websites:
The public engage with these agencies through their websites. The websites are a core part of the agencies’ business, so agencies invested time and resources to make them as easy as possible for users.
For the website case studies we used the same metrics as for the documents in our main study.
The readability scores for the websites were substantially better than for any of the documents in our survey.
Services Australia’s readability score was 119.3, higher than our benchmark of 100. This was far above the score of 50.8 for the best document we surveyed.
The readability score for ATO case study was 51.2 – also better than any of the 136 documents we assessed in the document survey.
With a grade level of 7.6, the Services Australia website pages met the Style Manual benchmark. Their result of only 0.3% long sentences was outstanding, better than the benchmark of 5%. Active voice sentences at 98.0% were better than the benchmark of 96%.
The ATO website pages had a grade level of 8.9. There were 17.4% long sentences and 86.0% active voice sentences.
These results show what is realistic and achievable, even with complex information or programs.
Lewis Carroll is incorrectly cited as having the Cheshire Cat say: ‘If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.’
Well, if we want to change, if we want documents to be clear then we first must define our destination – what are the standards – and work out a plan that will get us there.
Let’s conduct an exercise. What feedback would you give?
If we want to change how an organisation operates or produces documents then we engage from two directions:
Personnel defines how individuals and groups work, collaborate – or not. It captures distinct ideas such as leadership, skills, culture, aptitude. Organisation in this schema is an approach that is embedded in and adopted across an organisation and covers: standards, resources, processes and systems.
The point is that to produce clearer documents is a project that requires a whole-of-organisation approach, commitment, emergency rations and a plan for the long haul.
The starting point is leadership – a leadership group that wants to see change and that is prepared to invest the time, energy and resources to see change come about.
Services Australia had this leadership group.
Secondly, standards must be set high.
Third, staff must be rewarded for buying in.
Fourth, focus on what’s good to have.
Fifth, build on success.
Sixth, reward and promote success.
Finally, understand that we’re in this for the long haul so never give up and never surrender.