In Praise of Speaking Plainly: A TEDx Talk about Plain Language

In Praise of Speaking Plainly: A TEDx Talk about Plain Language

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of attending TEDx Danubia. An inspiring day that surpassed my expectations with brilliant speakers and audio-visual engagement in the beautiful Müpa venue. The range of topics was both dramatic and stimulating. However, from the lens of simplicity, one talk spoke to me the most: plain language.

Through the translated Hungarian in my headphones, I listened to Vera Gergely open her speech reading the text of a Hungarian tax document. The translator talked in the circles the form provided. The laughter of the audience at the absurdity of the text confirmed that I was hearing the same elaborate and baffling instructions.

Part of the laughter stemmed from hearing the complex, inaccessible wording intended for the average citizen. Part of the laughter came from realizing how ridiculous it is that this text is generally accepted as normal.

The problem of the tax document is not solely a Hungarian matter. In fact, I learned from Vera’s bio that there is a worldwide organization working to tackle this wordy problem: PLAIN (or Plain Language Association International). According to PLAIN, a communication is in plain language ‘if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information’.

What a simple, crazy idea.

The following table from the Government of Canada’s English-language guide provides fine examples of traditional verbose government wording and plain language. I find some of the examples almost comical when compared to their simplified pair:

Canada plain language

In this day and age, it can often seem like the only straightforward text is one precisely prepared by a marketing agency to sell the latest widget or to click onto a site. So much of what we read, from website terms and conditions to post office tariffs, is convoluted. After a dash a legalese, the text becomes inaccessible for the very people for which it’s written.

Everyday advocates, like Vera, promote the virtues of plain language. In Hungary, she furthers the cause by speaking to organizations, including the ones who pen those documents, as well as by giving awards to the clearest and most incomprehensible Hungarian texts.

As a lover of simplicity and of efficient systems, I commend the efforts of all the PLAIN people out there (a term meant affectionately). The next time you write instructions, directions or a document, remember the following guidelines:

  • use the simplest words possible, in short sentences within short paragraphs
  • use a structure that is logical and easy to follow
  • speak directly to the reader, providing the most important information

Plain language is not condescending language. It’s simplified text that varies based on the audience and the topic. The concept provides a valuable guiding principle. Using plain language, what is written can be understood.

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The Humble Beer Mat Gets Classy

The Humble Beer Mat Gets Classy

While I’m traveling, I am always interested in the simple things. I love discovering those items or spaces so thoughtfully designed or naturally occurring that they work well with less. Less waste, less energy, less effort. There’s plenty of examples to learn from within different cultures, histories, and landscapes.

Today, I’m beginning a catalog of these clever items that I think are worth remembering, worth considering, and worth taking back home, wherever home may be. I hope these act as an inspiration to see and seek simplicity in everyday objects.

Prague Old Town Square
Prague Old Town Square

Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Space:  Restaurace Kolonial, a sleek yet bicycle-themed bar near the Old Town Square

Simplified Item: the beer coaster

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A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

A Free Art and Architecture Tour of Barcelona

Barcelona is beautiful. It’s lively, fresh, warm and welcoming. It’s the fiercely proud capital of Catalonia and the hip urban hangout for those who want to explore the Spanish Mediterranean. It’s delightfully affordable and down-to-earth for a Western European capital. However, I think the best things in life are free, so here are a few cultural activities to take in without spending a Euro.

Sagrada Familia’s Facades

Antoni Gaudí dominates the city. His architectural presence is revered and delightful to discover. The English term ‘gaudy’ stems from his extravagant, strange and intricate buildings. His masterpiece, of course, is the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s basilica, which is still under construction. (They’re working hard to have it finished for the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death in 2026, but it’s unlikely the deadline will be met.) I highly recommend entering the Basilica. The interior is awe-inspiring, melding natural form, function, and faith. However, if you’d like to save the entry fee, you can still enjoy the structure. Take in the nativity scene over the north-eastern entrance – overseen by Gaudí’ himself, the facade captures the entire biblical scene, crowned by the vibrant colourful Tree of Life.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Nativity Facade

 

Meander around to the south-western entrance and take in the Passion facade. See how the architect defined his own style with angular interpretations of the scenes. But the natural feature can be seen in the columns overlaying the structure, reminiscent of the bones of human skeleton supporting the facade. Both sides have a park adjacent with sunlit benches for you sit and look. And look. And look.

Barcelona Sagrada Familia Passion Facade

If you tire of the architecture, you can also take in a fine example of bocce ball play as the north-eastern park, Plaça de Gaudí, has courts filled with local grey-haired gentlemen squaring off against each other.

Barcelona bocce ball at play

Antoni Llena’s Homage to the Castells

My favourite piece of public art had to be in the Homenatge als Castellers. In part because the form is playful, simple but imaginative. In part because I love how it plays tribute to one of the wildest activities I had ever heard of: the Castell. In Catalonia, people will build human castles at festivals. Yes, men will literally tower over one another, competing to be the highest castle. I only wish I could visit Barcelona in late summer to take in the festivals. For me, the creative, chicken-wire version was a small, but satisfying replacement.

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The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

The Day 50,000+ People Reminded Me: Democracy is Fragile

On Sunday afternoon, I attended the impressive rally calling for the Hungarian President to veto the legislation that would rule Central European University’s current operations illegal. It’s a political play by the Hungarian government to assert power and limit academic freedom. Wiser people with better context can explain the political context herehere and here. For me, it’s a short-sighted step that prioritizes politics and control over transparency and academia. Last night, the president signed it into law (which spurred on spontaneous protests at the official residence).

At Sunday’s protest, it was beautiful to see tens of thousands of people united for freedom. The crowd was the full range of Hungarian demographics, with a smaller mix of global geographies, which CEU is often responsible for inviting to the city. Here, you could feel the energy of the crowd and the real desire for openness and change. It’s not about which party’s struggle for power is less corrupt, but about corruption itself. About representation itself. CEU, though important, is now but one of the issues to protest.

Photo taken by (the much taller) Mr. Stahl.

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Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Five Steps to Hosting a Successful Clothing Swap

Here in Budapest, spring has sprung. The sun is getting stronger, the clocks sprang forward, and everyone is ready to shed their winter layers for spring clothing. In the age of fast fashion, there’s a tendency to head to the mall. The better answer to your spring wardrobe refresh is: host a clothing swap!

I’m a big fan of the clothing swap. The idea is simple: invite people to bring in nice-but-no-longer-loved clothing together and exchange it. There’s pressure, especially for women, to constantly buy new clothing to stay up-to-date, professional and appealing. While people are ditching the consumerist behaviour in many rad ways, the clothing swap is one more strategy to simplify, save and enjoy.

I’ve done this with friends, in a slow fashion pop-up, at a community event, and most recently here at Impact Hub Budapest, marking Buy Nothing Day in November, and just yesterday, the start of Spring.

Clothing Swap at Impact Hub BudapestOne of the clothing swaps strengths is that it’s a hard event to screw up. However, here are the key steps I’ve discovered to hosting a successful one:

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Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

Stories and Silence in Phnom Penh: How I Learned about Cambodia’s Haunting History

{Disclaimer: this post discusses difficult content and may not be appropriate for all readers.}

[This post is the third part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]

The Cambodian people are a warm, smiling, welcoming people. The people we met in our travels were gracious and kind. The kind of people who wave and smile brightly as you stand confused trying to cross the toad with never-ending traffic with your obviously-tourist pack. A wave and smile that doesn’t judge but says “Welcome to Cambodia!”. The capital of Phnom Penh is developing so quickly that if you stand still long enough, you can watch the city grow. However, this shift in development comes after a horrific period in their history, followed by international misunderstanding and mishandling in the wake of a genocide.

Cambodian countryside

I knew little of the Cambodian genocide until watching Brother Number One at the then called Global Visions Festival in Edmonton. It told the story of the genocide through one man’s journey to understand what happened to his brother after he sailed into Cambodian waters in 1978. It was powerful and gruesome and heart-breaking.

During our stay in Phnom Penh, the travel-savvy Camille organized a van to tour for our group, a fantastic hodge-podge of six visiting Canadians who happened upon the city at the same time. The van would take us to two memorial sites dedicated to the victims of the Khmer Rouge genocide: the Killing Fields and S21.

Killing Fields
The uncovered Killing Fields.

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In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

In Praise of the Humble Christmas Card

After a long, chilly December day, you make your way home. On your way to your door, you take a peek inside the mailbox. A small envelope with your name, hand-written, makes your day so much warmer as you bustle inside and shed your layers to open the mail. The envelope reveals a colourful Christmas card and a reminder of a loved one somewhere in the world*.

Christmas tree on a roof
A little warmth on a cold December night.

I am a big proponent of the Christmas card, as a recipient and a sender. In general, we give too much ‘stuff’ during the holidays. I know that pressure to give the people you love and appreciate …something to let them know that you care about them at Christmas time. This well-intentioned thought often leads to gifts that aren’t really needed and aren’t really right for that person. They sit awkwardly in the place of the words and emotions it was meant to convey. More often than not, a heartfelt card can capture and share that thought better than any poorly chosen gift. During the holidays, keep it simple, and simply send your love.

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A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

A Simple Traveler’s Guide to Berlin

Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.

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Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Halle-loumi!

The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.

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Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

Architecture’s Dirty Secret: Mud’s Marketing Problem

“Three billion people live in a house made of mud. For good reason!”

This fact leaped from the wall of text of the Mud WORKS! display as I perused the (obviously) impressively-designed Architecture Biennale in Venezia. Coming from Canada, the thought of mud-housing brings up images of poverty and hardship. However, for all the green building innovation, it may be the most cost-effective, hyper-local, cradle-to-grave-friendly building style.  Many people I know would love to live in a net-zero home. Yet, few would be excited about living in a home made of mud. All these benefits are obvious, yet the idea is somehow too basic.

It seems mud is too humble for its own good. Or, perhaps for our own good. Is this architecture’s dirty secret?

Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.
Gabinete de Arquitectura’s “Breaking the Siege” also highlights simple, locally produced materials.

A Viennese en route to Venice

We were lucky enough to share our train couchette to from Vienna to Venice with a mud-loving architect named David. We first chatted about Central European weather, Austrian politics, bicycle design, and then the biennale where he was invited to participate in a student workshop. He spoke enthusiastically about his thesis project in South Sudan.

Our train arriving in Venice
Morning rail arrival to Venice

He worked with an Austrian non-profit and the local community to design a health center constructed with locally-sourced materials: mainly mud and wood. Mud was essential in providing the main building material, as well as a strategic tool in protecting the wooden structure from termite infiltration. As is often the case, it would have been easier to protect the structure using purchased materials, but costs rise exponentially. As a pair of enthusiastic thesis students, they pushed to use local, inexpensive and easily repairable materials. With ingenuity and a little maintenance, they built a locally-sourced, environmentally-friendly building. The structure can now be locally maintained with little cost, expanded with little cost, and ultimately, demolished with little impact.

Talking Dirty at the Biennale

This idea of elevating mud was further enforced at the Biennale. The theme was ‘Reporting from the Front’, focusing on architecture that is building to connect with civil society, building for the millions of new urban dwellers and building in ways that creatively manoeuvre around the complex obstacles of modern life.

Biennale entrance

The pavilions were filled with architecture tackling these problems in ways that are as beautiful as they are innovative. Displays stretched across two grounds, providing more rich creativity and context than I could reasonably process. In this expansive event dedicated to the leading edge of architecture and design, humble mud was put on a pedestal. On display for all to see and bask in its simple, sustainable merits.

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Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Serenissima in Venice: Six Tips for Traveling Simply

Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.

Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.

 View from the Rialto Bridge, Venice
View from the Rialto Bridge

After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.

Traveling Simply: For the Budget

Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.

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