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.

Hungarian lesson at the Christmas Market

“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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