Reflection – 30 days of simplicity

There were a lot of talks included in this activity, but that wasn’t a problem with this one because there was a strong focus on communications and language (Alan Siegel, Sandra Fisher-Martins, and Rory Sutherland) whether directly or indirectly. John Maeda’s talk is about overall simplicity, so that one I was able to use more in my personal life as well. All in all, quite a focused combination.

So what are the main things that I discovered/rediscovered during this process and where to from here with the simplicity journey?

Language is not simple
This is particularly true in government and in government communications. We seem to take a lot of words to say things that should be, in theory, very simple to explain. To understand why you need to understand some of the issues around this. For me I think that the following characteristics of government are to blame:

  • Avoiding misinterpretation (or covering our arses) – we feel the need to over-explain everything and provide too much detail in the hope that we reduce the chances of people misinterpreting the message. The thing is that a lot of what we do is so complex that there is no way to ensure that people do not read what they want into the policy or information. All we end up doing is making what should be a simple communication complex by introducing concepts and issues for the sake of explaining that they do not apply.
  • One-size fits all – often times we start from the point of view that one communication should suit everyone, rather than have multiple communications in multiple formats targeted at each audience. This is not true for everything but often we decide that we will draft the policy and that will be the same document that is used internally with all levels of staff, and externally with stakeholders, organisations and the general public.
  • We don’t want to offend – there is a push in many government organisations to introduce plain English rules into our written work. I think that this is a great initiative, and when it is done well the communication tools become so much easier for everyone to engage with. The problem is that there are some people who believe that this level of communication is too simplistic, and the people using the material will be offended by how simple we have made it. Seriously people, whilst some people may initially think “this has been dumbed down”, as long as it tells them what they need to know I’m pretty sure they won’t care.
  • History of formality and waffling – we have spent so long being taught to write in a non-committal, passive voice. My career in government started when I joined the Royal Australian Air Force. We went through training to learn defence writing, there is an art in it apparently. The main thing I remember is that we were taught to be very formal and always speak in the third person, this writer sees a problem with that 🙂 And even though there was a push for us to learn plain English writing about 4 years into my career, my senior managers would always change the language back and I would be told that my style wasn’t correct defence writing – it will be hard to break this tradition. This writing format was not as strict in other government departments I’ve worked, but there is still a tendency to not use ‘I’ and ‘we’. This just complicates the whole process because you come up with very convoluted constructs to avoid using these particular pronouns.
    And often this sort of language leads to overuse of the passive voice, making content even harder to understand. I continue to struggle with this one regularly, because I just slide into the passive voice and when I get into that mode I find it very hard to identify and change. Due to our non-committal communication style, the passive voice seems to be the preferred way of writing in government (there it is again and that wasn’t even planned).
I don’t know how to resolve all of this, maybe focus and training is the only answer, but it has to improve. I mean, I am pretty well educated and believe I comprehend written language quite well and I struggle with some government content. So I don’t know how some of the general public deal with it.
For me, I will continue to push along with incorporating plain English rules into my writing, as much as I can. I will also continue to push this with others where it is appropriate to do so.
Structuring information is seldom simple
I’m an information manager and have had many jobs where I have designed web structures, setup shared drive folder structures and designed file structures for recordkeeping. So this one is not news to me, but I did have a few painful reminders of just how complex this can be.
The problem is that not only do different people have different ways of approaching information, but a single person can also have different ways of doing it at different times. It comes down to the main focus of the day, or what task your brain is really focused on. And information has no innate classification within it, it’s all about hierarchy and what the author thinks is the important elements. Is it a financial/logistics document or logistics/finance?
This gets really complicated in web structures, particularly on sites with poor search engines (like our intranet). There were a few things that I started trying to sort out during the 30 days that I will continue to push along, this is one that has been annoying me for well over 18 months now.
Simplicity in my everyday life
Applying John Maeda’s laws of simplicity to some aspects of my daily life was very beneficial. Some of this will come back in a later activity as well, but for now I found the laws of Context, Learn, Organise and Reduce to be particularly powerful in the actions I undertook during the activity.
I know that I felt much more comfortable when I organised the study to reduce the amount of clutter that was around. And the thing is that these are not epiphanies, I know that I always feel more settled when things have a home and there is less clutter, but we tend to forget these truisms on a day to day basis.
The one other law that I tried very hard to remember was Failure, that some things can never be made simple. And this came in handy on a number of occasions when I realised that I couldn’t make some things any simpler, and that they still required a considerable amount of explanation so the content was understandable.
And in summation…
Again, like many of the previous activities, the power in this has been giving it a focus for 30 days. Making sure that before I began tasks I put the simplicity filter on to see how I could potentially improve things. And overall, I found that using that filter has made me more considered in my approach and has improved the work some of the work I have produced.
In some ways it might have been cheating to include something I am very passionate about and have already tried to incorporate into my career. But I had not made a concerted effort to push plain English in my work before, and with the web design I feel I should have done something about it by now but haven’t. And then there is the application of the laws in my everyday life, which I hadn’t attempted previously. So whilst it is something that I am passionate about, I haven’t been conscientious about really applying it.
That has now changed, and this really is an activity that I will keep going. There is such a long way to go to improve government communication and information for the general public, and now that I know my Why it makes a lot of sense that this is part of my How.
Thank you to all four speakers for such inspiring calls to action.
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