All posts by Greg Pendlebury

Procedures: how to write for business benefit

Most businesses define work activities in a written procedure. (If your business doesn’t, it really should.) Procedures, sometimes called Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), work instructions or safe work method statements, are the basis for a well controlled business.

But how do you write a procedure well? What makes a good SOP? You could mindlessly follow a template someone else has developed, or you could think about what you want to achieve, what would work best for your business. Some templates can be helpful, but they may not be best for your organisation. See some examples.

The elements of good work procedures

A purpose statement and a link to overall process

Workers need to know how the activity they perform fits into the big picture; how it contributes to the overall process and the purpose of the organisation.You could do this with a context statement, or locating the activity in a process map. Also give a thoughtful title to the procedure.

When working in the road surfacing industry, we changed a procedure title from ‘Drive the broom tractor’ to ‘Prepare the surface’. This had an immediate impact on how workers viewed the activity and lifted the self esteem of the broom driver.

Performance standards

Procedures should do more than merely provide a list of tasks to perform. They should include information about how to assess the quality of those tasks. Workers and supervisors then have some objective measures to judge performance.

The standards could be related to quality, performance or safety.

Grouped into sensible work chunks

Chunking work into steps and sub-steps provides helpful structure for workers. It avoids a long list of tasks, and fits well with the way workers think about the job.

For example, the work chunk ‘Find outstanding invoices’ could have sub-steps like Find the file, Search invoices by date range, Print report.

‘Thinking’ and ‘Doing’ sections

“Work is the exercise of discretion within boundaries.”
John Ralph, former CEO of CRA.

Procedures, SOPs, define the boundaries. They are the things workers must do. But to better engage workers, we want them thinking about their work too. That’s good for them and good for the business. So we might want to direct thinking about productivity, safety or environmental matters.

For example, include thinking prompts in the procedure like: ‘How could we reduce the paperwork?’ ‘Residents may be moving in and out of driveways as you inspect the footpath – take care.’

Standard resources

Include the equipment needed for the task, including safety related equipment. Describe the skills and competencies required. It may be appropriate to include the standard time taken for the task.

All this information allows you to cost the procedure and measure the impact of improvements and changes to business practice. For example, we discovered it takes 10 minutes to process and record payments into a law firm’s trust fund. If the firm offers clients a payment plan, increasing the number of payments, they may significantly increase their back office costs.

Plain language

All documents should be written in plain language.

When procedures are written plainly, workers can understand them quickly and implement them. If they are written in a style that workers find difficult, they may be confused and do the wrong thing, or waste time asking for clarification, or totally ignore the procedures and do what they think is best.

You can prove procedures, and all documents, have been written plainly with PlainLanguagePro certification.

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You’ve written it with care, but will it be read, understood and acted on?

User testing is a must to increase the chance that a document is read, understood and acted on. (A document could be a printed process, fact sheet or report, or it could be web text.)

Effective business documents have an impact on the thinking, attitudes or behaviour of readers. If they don’t, the investment in researching, writing and reviewing is all wasted. Writing with care is vital; but care in crafting the document doesn’t guarantee success. Even well organised, plainly written documents can fail to achieve their purpose.

Testing documents with users before they are released is the best way to improve the likelihood of success. And it’s not difficult or expensive.

There are multiple ways to test a document, but one of the simplest is to design a set of questions to be used in a structured interview. Give the test subject the document or website to read. Then, ask them questions exploring what they understand and what they would do next.

You can get helpful insights with just a handful of tests.

Testing with real users, or people who represent real users, is far more powerful than passing the text around the office for your colleagues to review. Only real users have the perspectives and the constraints needed for a valid test.

User testing is required for a document to display the PlainLanguagePro GOLD trademark.

There is never enough time or money to do it right, but there is always enough time and money to do it again.

 

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Superannuation PDS readability

The superannuation industry is in the news again today; described as an “unlucky lottery”.
Among other issues, poor information is still a problem – ” They’re bamboozled by poor disclosure …”
I thought I’d have a look at how easy it is to read some Product Disclosure Documents. I’ve looked at two dimensions across 10 popular funds.

1. Likely reading time

People are less likely to read longer documents. We all prefer to read short documents than long ones – we want information fast.

2. Readability

People need easy to read text to help them understand complex ideas. Readability indices are one way to measure how easy it is to read and understand text.
All these indices are higher than the Australian Government’s recommendation of between 3 & 4. link. My view is aiming at about 7 – 8 is OK for this type of content.

Why readability matters

The PDS is a functional document. People are supposed to use these to decide whether the fund is a right fit for them. Of course they need to read and understand the information in the PDS to be able to make this decision. And this is an important decision that can have impacts over a lifetime.
Many application forms ask potential members to declare that they have read and understood the PDS. A lengthy or difficult to read document discourages reading. It may encourage people to make a false declaration – to tick the box without reading or understanding.
And difficult to read documents are risky for funds too. The focus is shifting from ‘did you read the document’ (aimed at the reader) to ‘is the document readable’ (aimed at the writer).
 

Be careful with readability tools.

The readability tests I’ve used are mechanical tests that look at word and sentence complexity. They cannot be relied on by themselves, but a high grade index does indicate the text could be simpler.(The grade number refers to US school grade)
These tools do not consider document structure, meaning and the usefulness of content. It is possible to write highly readable rubbish.
 

The tests in detail

1. Reading time
I divided the total word count by 200. The avaerage reader reads at about 200 – 220 words per minute.
2. Readability
I used computerised versions of
  • Flesch Kincaid Grade Level
  • Gunning Fog Score
  • Coleman Liau Index
  • SMOG Index
  • Automated Readability
  • Index Spache Readability Score
  • Dale-Chall Readability Score

and calculated the aritmetic mean.

Documents were sourced on 29 May 2018 from:
Hostplus https://hostplus.com.au/financial-services-guide
Australian Super https://www.australiansuper.com/tools-and-advice/learn/product-disclosure-statements
Intrust Super http://www.intrustsuper.com.au/wp-content/uploads/Core-PDS.pdf
CareSuper https://www.caresuper.com.au/super/forms-publications/pds
Cbus https://www.cbussuper.com.au/content/dam/cbus/files/forms-publications/general-information/Cbus-Industry-Super-PDS.pdf
BUSSQ https://www.bussq.com.au/disclosure
ANZ Smart Choice https://www.wealth.anz.com/content/dam/anzwealth/pdfs/superannuation/Smart-Choice-Super-Pension-PDS.pdf
Virgin Money Super https://virginmoney.com.au/content/dam/virginmoney/vma-downloads/superannuation/Virgin-Money-Super-Product-Disclosure-Statement.pdf
AMP MY North https://www.amp.com.au/content/dam/product/mynorth/MyNorth_SuperPension_PDS.pdf
ING Living Super https://www.ing.com.au/pdf/ING_DIRECT_Living_Super_PDS.pdf
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Why I am a plain language zealot

All business and government documents should be written in plain language. These are ‘functional documents’; people are expected to use these documents (information products) to do something.

Writing in plain language is important because:

Plain language builds a more just society

Writing plainly means more people will be able to read and understand your message.

If our audiences cannot follow legal documents, information leaflets or letters, there is the risk of their breaking the law, or failing to do what is expected of them or receiving what is rightfully theirs.” (Tasmanian Government)

Choosing not to write plainly can introduce social disadvantage. Excluding people from being able to easily understand contracts, laws and other information limits their choices. They can’t fully participate in society.

Plain language displays clear thinking

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” (attributed to Albert Einstein) No matter who said it, the idea is helpful.

When you have a deep understanding of an idea, you can find words, metaphors and images that help other people understand it too. You can explain the idea simply and with precision. If you only have a superficial understanding, you are likely to express the idea vaguely. It is unlikely to be written plainly.

If people understand more of what you’re saying, they will likely feel that you make sense.(Hoa Loranger)

Plain language aids effectiveness and efficiency

Business and government documents need to be both effective (achieve purpose) and efficient (read and understood quickly). Writing in plain language helps achieve both goals.

Complex, technical or pompous writing does not convey ideas quickly – readers have to battle to make sense of what is written. Writing plainly means using words and structures that your audience can quickly understand. (Knowing your audience is vital – when writing for technical readers you may use terms that lay people would call jargon.)

Writing plainly using familiar words and simple structures is not dumbing down. It helps less able readers to understand, and helps more able readers to read faster.

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Plain language vs Plain English – a subtle but important difference

When I first started in this industry nearly three decades ago, I thought the terms ‘plain language’ and ‘plain English’ were synonymous. Writing professionals from Canada often talked about ‘plain language’ because they dealt with both French and English, but in countries like Australia, New Zealand, USA and Britain the term ‘plain English’ was more common. (By the way, Canada has a long and rich history encouraging plain writing – since the 1920s the Royal Bank of Canada newsletter has provided helpful advice about writing clearly.)

But over the decades I’ve observed a subtle shift; a shift in emphasis or focus.

Plain English professionals tend to focus on features of the language. They aim to make documents clear and concise. They talk about helpful techniques like using familiar words, preferring the active voice, writing with more verbs than nouns, keeping sentences short and writing in a conversational style.

Plain language professionals tend to focus more on readers and the way they respond to a document. They aim to make documents clear, concise and effective. They consider how the reader will encounter the document and the desired response. Plain language professionals see documents as information products, and so often incorporate user testing before publishing, just as we would for any other product.

Plain English professionals often concentrate on correctness; plain language professionals focus on usefulness.

plain language focuses on usefulnessOf course, the overlap between the two groups of professionals is vast. There is more that unites than divides. Plain language writers will use all the plain English techniques, and plain English writers always consider their readers. However, in my view, the gradual shift in focus is real.

The Australian Office of Parliamentary Counsel says:

We prefer to use the term “plain language” rather than “plain English” because we believe that it covers a wider range of techniques and practices. (http://www.opc.gov.au/PLAIN/index.htm)

Even Wikipedia entries reflect this subtle difference in focus:

Plain English is language that is easy to understand, emphasizes clarity and brevity, and avoids overly complex vocabulary. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_English)

Plain language is writing designed to ensure the reader understands as quickly, easily, and completely as possible.
(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plain_language)

So what? Is this an artificial distinction and ‘splitting hairs’. I think not. The difference is important, especially when writing functional business documents. Writing clear and concise text is not the goal. Effective communication is the goal – and that requires a deliberate focus on readers and usability. Readers should both understand the content and know what to do with it.

Greg Pendlebury

PlainLanguagePro.org

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Don’t accept a broken document

If you cannot easily read and understand a document or website, it is broken. Don’t accept it. Don’t be pressured to sign it, agree to it or use it.

A business or government document is an information product. You would not put up with a car that doesn’t run, or a chair that falls over. Neither should you accept an information product that does not perform its designed function.

Business and government documents and websites are designed to convey information that people need to act on. Fact sheets, contracts, agreements, advice letters all perform a function – they are designed to do something. So they need to work, and work well.

We should rightly expect information products to be easy to use, just like any other well designed product. You should be able to read the document easily and extract the information you need quickly. Do not think you are stupid if you can’t – it’s likely the fault of the document.

So what could you do when you encounter a difficult document? Ask the document owner to rework the information product so that it is easy to use. Push back. Demand to understand!

plainlanguagepro.org is certifying documents, guaranteeing they are written plainly and easy to use.

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How financial planners can demonstrate their documents are ‘clear, concise and effective’.

Situation:

The Corporations Act requires Financial Services Guides and Statements of Advice to be worded in a way that is clear, concise and effective. ASIC’s Regulatory Guide 175 emphasises that information must be presented in a manner that is easy for the client to understand. The guide encourages consumer testing of documents (it may be unwise to ignore this encouragement).

Complication:

Communicating complex content clearly is difficult. If readers can’t understand, agreements may be unenforceable and advice considered defective. Writers cannot blame the reader if they don’t understand, and may not be able to blame the reader even if they don’t read the document. The question is shifting from “Did you read the document?”, aimed at the reader, to “Is the document readable?”, aimed at the writer.

Focusing questions:

How can financial planners demonstrate they have taken seriously their duty to communicate in a way that is clear, concise and effective?

How can financial planners demonstrate they have taken reasonable steps to present information in a manner that is easy for the client to understand?
Solution:

The new PlainLanguagePro certification trademarks introduce standards to confirm a document is written plainly. Your in-house plain language professionals can certify the documents they write the standards – a simple and inexpensive process. Documents meeting the standards may display a PlainLanguagePro mark, declaring a commitment to clear communication.

See plainlanguagepro.org

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Banking Royal Commission – write plainly to treat people fairly

The terms of reference of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry states

All Australians have the right to be treated honestly and fairly in their dealings with banking, superannuation and financial services providers.

People are not treated fairly when information about financial products is written poorly. People cannot make good decisions when they cannot easily read and understand Financial Services Guides, contracts and other documents.

Difficult writing disadvantages people.

It would be useful for the commission to look at the role poor documentation plays in disadvantage. It is well within their remit as it considers:

Whether any conduct, practices, behaviour or business activities by financial services entities fall below community standards and expectations.

Corporations law says that Financial Services Guides and other documents must be written so that they are ‘clear, concise and effective’. Many documents in the financial services space fail to meet this basic requirement.

Service providers can develop documents with the best intent in the world; but if they judge suitability from their own perspective they will come up short. The suitability of a document can only truly be judged from the readers’ perspective.

The best way write any document about financial products is to write it in plain language. This way of writing presents information so that most readers can understand. It avoids jargon, big words and complex sentence structure. It simply talks about the topic in a straightforward manner.

PlainLanguagePro document certification can prove a document has been written plainly.

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Why don’t we test information products?

No one would consider releasing a physical product to the market without testing it first. From motor vehicles to pencils, it’s hard to think of a product that has not been tested throughout its design and production.

To not test would be reckless. The product could fail in some way, perhaps harming consumers or damaging the organisation’s reputation in some way.

But when it comes to information products, printed or web documents, many are released with only minimal review. Rarely do organisations rigorously test their documents to check comprehension and impact. Usually, documents are reviewed by a handful of managers and then sent out.

The underlying arrogance says ‘If we think it is OK, it must be.’ To release an information product in that way, to release any product like that, is reckless.

  • An untested document may not be read. For a document to be effective, it must be read (thank you Captain Obvious). If you can’t get people to read your document, all is lost.
  • An untested document may not be understood. A good document conveys ideas, quickly and easily, . from one person to another. It’s vital to test ideas are being received properly.
  • An untested document may not be acted on. Test the impact on the thinking, attitudes, behaviour of readers. How else will you know whether all the writing and review effort has been worthwhile?
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