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 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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“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

“Puszi! Puszi!” And Other Lessons in Hungarian

I finished my second Hungarian class just before the holidays. The finale was fun with a trip to Vörösmarty tér to put my fledgling magyar mumblings to use in the midst of the bustling Christmas market. Stumbling over double-letter letters (gy and ny ain’t easy) and creatively applying my limited vocabulary, my classmate and I successfully ordered a lángos and forralt bor, asked for prices and made small talk with patient, pleasant Hungarian vendors. With my head brimming with newly found knowledge and Hungarian wine, I wanted to share some of my favourite Hungarian language phrases.

This language is notoriously difficult to learn. Many people use this as an excuse not to, and in Budapest, you can generally get along fine without it. I can’t say I’ve reached the level of learning where I see this tremendous complication, though I can see it in the distance. For anyone considering learning it, go for it! For a beginner, don’t get scared off – basic Hungarian it’s no more complicated than any other language, and its full of verbal delights.

Heros Square
Heros Square: a monument to Hungarian history

The language has an interesting history, and the Magyars are fiercely proud of their difficult nyelv. This video provides the best summary of Hungarian I’ve heard yet, as well as a handy dose of Magyar history:

Yet, they are among the most generous, patient and encouraging people to language learners. Nearly every Hungarian has met my bumbling efforts with a kind smile, surprised eyes and a reply.  A friend recently told me that when foreigners learn Hungarian, it’s as though we’re stroking the soul of the country. If that’s not encouragement to learn, I don’t know what is.

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Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

Meat and Potatoes: On Gratitude and Priviledge

The other day I was walking home when a woman standing outside of my building stopped me and asked for help. She had a kind face that was toughened from what seemed to be a difficult life. She spoke to me in Hungarian asking for money or food, but then translated to the internationally understood hand signals for these essentials. I repeated, “No, sorry” and “Nem, bocsánat” and moved to walk past her and into my building. When people ask me for either, I never give cash directly, but if I have some food with me, I’m happy to share. Having none and thinking of the work I wanted to get done that afternoon I was about to continue on with my day.

Rakoszi Market vegetablesShe repeated that international sign for food, and then gestured to her belly. Only then I realized that she was quite pregnant, maybe five or six months. At that moment, I also pulled out my iPhone to stop the podcast I was enjoying. The two movements combined reminded and humbled me of my incredible luck in being born to a loving, wealthy (by world standards, not North American ones), Canadian family. I tucked away my iPhone and mustered my minor Hungarian to offer to buy some food for her at a nearby restaurant.

We walked together down the street. We continued to talk and negotiate in broken English and broken Hungarian, her  “hús” (meat), “krumpli” (potatoes) and me “nem pénz” (in my poor Hungarian the words ‘no’ and ‘money’, though it should really be something like nincs pénz, but I’m learning). She shook her head at the Gyros place (fair enough), and we continued to the corner grocery store.

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Moving: My Two Questions to Sift ….Stuff

Moving: My Two Questions to Sift ….Stuff

Since I signed my first lease 9 years ago, I’ve moved twelves times, including my most recent jaunt. In the same year I signed that first lease (on adulthood), The Weakerthans released their album Reunion Tour with one of most thoughtful odes to moving. This song beautifully portrays the feeling of leaving an old apartment behind, moving to new spaces and places, a time perfectly poised to push you into reflection.

This September 1st, Derek and I moved into a lovely new apartment. We shuffled the move around a trip to Canada, myself leaving early to help get ready for #aaronandbecca2016, while Derek, slowly but surely, biked our belongings in small boxes and awkward loads across the inner city from one furnished apartment to another. I returned to do only a final sweep and unpack into our new abode.

Moving, though a royal pain, is one of my favourite opportunities. It’s the easiest time of the year to practice a minimalist lifestyle. I strive to live a simple lifestyle with varying levels of success, but I am most successful during an apartment move. Every time I move, I have to sift through all the things I’ve collected over that year or two. Particularly with furnished apartments, the items I move can generally be labeled ‘stuff’. Because moving is such a pain, it’s a great time to make a break with that stuff that doesn’t deserve the sweat required to shuttle it to a new place.

Duna view
Duna view between the old and new.

My Two Questions

Most recently, I’ve been using a butchered but reasonably effective version of the KonMari Method. I, like a lot of people, have as much emotional attachment to items from the memories and people associated with them, as the physical usefulness of them. Both emotional and utilitarian values are important to me, and my most treasured items have a combination of the two factors. So, in determining if I keep an item, I first ask ‘Does it bring me joy?’ and ‘Do I use it?’.

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April 23: Earth Day Resolution Day

April 23: Earth Day Resolution Day

[Aside update: After a misfortunate run-in with a wily beer glass and a fortunate experience with the Hungarian medical system, I have a repaired severed tendon and a splinted right hand for four weeks. All’s well, however, the SASS posts may be a little sparse and/or succinct over the recovery time. Hurrah for ambidexterity.]

Danube Calling Earth Day eventYesterday was Earth Day. The largest global event both celebrating the Earth and fighting for its protection. Forty-four years in, it’s a day of hope, of cynicism, of action, of announcements. I held a lot of hope yesterday with the act of 175 countries signing of the Paris Agreement in New York, an important step towards true climate action. An agreement that, as Elizabeth May noted, “is not the treaty that saves the world. It’s the treaty that gives the world a chance to save ourselves.” I felt hopeful listening to Hungarian and global social enterprises discuss their purpose and their way of effecting change at a Startup Safary panel at Impact Hub Budapest. I felt a lot of joy seeing people of all ages connect to the Danube and celebrate the Earth through art at the Danube Flow – Hív a Duna! event as the river lapped at our feet. Read more

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16 Lessons I’ve Learned in my 29 Years

16 Lessons I’ve Learned in my 29 Years

As I approached my birthday, I started to think of the things I’ve learned in my first 29 years on the planet.  I thought it might be fun to put together the lessons I gathered into a list. I started writing it out, and though I had some mildly clever thoughts, I realized that most of my lessons came from my family, friends, bosses, coworkers and the great writers of the world. Here I’ll provide a small homage to the lessons they’ve taught me, in shaping me into the woman I am today. It’s a sort of collection of educational gifts I’ve received over the years.

Birthday celebrations
Yep, I’ve loved birthday celebrations (e.g. ‘PrDE’) since I was a kiddo.

Life Lessons

1. “You can never be too kind.” — Mom

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Five Things that are Simply Budapest

Five Things that are Simply Budapest

I’ve been in Budapest for just over four months, seeing autumn into an unseasonably and certainly unCanadianly mild winter. Though my Hungarian language skills are still lacking, I don’t consume nearly enough pork (i.e. almost none) to manage Hungarian dishes, and my Hungarian travels outside of Budapest number only two, I have been soaking in the ebb and flow of Hungarian life. In these days, I’ve begun to distill a few things that are, to me, uniquely Hungarian.

You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello

But we both mean ‘see you later’. I did a number of double takes as I would leave a shop or a restaurant and say “goodbye” or “viszlát”, and they would reply with “hello!”. In Hungarian, the greeting ‘szia!’ is similar to ciao and aloha in that it can be used for greeting or parting. Hungarians have adopted the most popular English-language greeting ‘hello’ into their own daily language with the same dual use. Though it takes some getting used to, it makes it really easy to pretend I speak Hungarian when entering anywhere in Budapest.

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Showing Up: Global Climate March on Sunday

Showing Up: Global Climate March on Sunday

Things need to change.

That’s simple.

Little else is.

Climate change is a complex, global process that disparately effects the regions and peoples of the world. The solution is complex, requiring rapid, insightful action on every personal and political level. If you’re reading this blog, you know the situation and I don’t need to lay out the facts. If you’d like to read more from the world’s experts, you can find more here, here, here and here.

As complex as it is, there are a number of simple steps. In fact, the UN created The Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World. I’m not sure if it’s clever marketing or a sad statement of the state of the world. Either way, there are simple tips to minimize your impact. I’ll advocate for another simple action: show up.

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Nothing’s Simple in History

Nothing’s Simple in History

After watching the devastating news about the attacks in Paris on Friday night and later learning about the attacks in Beirut on Thursday, it was quite a solemn weekend in our household. It’s hard to understand how such cruelty can be played out amongst innocent people. To better understand, I turn to a wide range of media sources to grasp the factors that took us to this point in history. It’s never simple. It’s layers of historical shifts, political plays, media overlays weaved together. My combination of CBC, Al Jazeera (including a new favourite AJ+), Twitter, Wikipedia and other articles, infographics and commentary that pop into my news, searches and social media feeds never provide a perfectly clear picture, but it does deepen my understanding of the situation. It deepens my empathy to the victims and affected communities. It deepens my compassion for those fleeing fear and my support for those fighting for peace and justice on all sides.

Memento Park Entrance

With this dark veil over the weekend, it made for a very interesting time to visit Budapest’s Memento Park. The Park was developed as a holding place for the statues and plaques of the Communist era. When Hungary peacefully became a democratic country with parliamentary elections in 1990, there was much debate as to the fate of the statues. Though destruction was suggested, the Budapest city council resolved to create a themed statue park. The architect Ákos Eleőd described the park as such:

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