Performance from Hamilton: An American Musical. Image Credit: Joan Marcus via Atlantic Records.
When you work in government, it’s safe to say you’ll also have a soft spot for government fiction. GovLoop gets it. Whether your personal favorite is Parks and Rec or Scandal, these stories about government help us reflect on the work we do, they inspire us to serve, and they make us laugh about our shared experiences good and bad. You may not realize it, but they can also teach us a lot about effective government communications, and more specifically about plain language.
In my work for the State of Minnesota, I support plain language initiatives kick-started by an executive order from our governor a couple years ago. Through training and hands-on consultation, I help government agencies ensure their documents and information are clear and easy to understand. As I’ve done this work, I’ve drawn some connections between the plain language principles we deploy, and the storytelling tools of great government fiction. Here are three examples to show you what I mean:
1. The Big Short
Let’s be honest: if The Big Short can take intricacies of our modern economic system – from credit default swaps to stock market derivatives – and make them the topic of an Academy Award-nominated, comedy film, then we can take our dense government forms and documents and make them more user-friendly. Much of The Big Short’s success comes from the tone of its language and its willingness to break “the fourth wall.” Through narration and cameos that address the viewer directly, we learn about complex subject manner. And we get a couple laughs while doing so.
We can take the same approach in our communications. Here’s how:
- Stop writing in a removed, third-person fashion. Drop the formality and the pretense.
- Write in first person. Talk to people and be direct (pro-tip: use those personal pronouns).
- Break the fourth wall, as it were. Explicitly acknowledge the people involved on both sides of the equation, authors and readers. Remember that documents and content are ultimately a conversation.
2. The West Wing
Poll West Wing super-fans about why they love the show, and I’m confident most of them would cite its optimistic tone and its unmatched ability to inspire. It’s a trademark of creator Aaron Sorkin’s many projects, probably best seen in the dramatic speeches and monologues characters deliver in the most opportune of moments. But the West Wing, doesn’t just inspire; it also has an unparalleled level of information density for a fictional TV show, covering topics like the U.S. Census and Congressional Budget Bills in surprisingly robust detail.
The information and inspiration go hand in hand; the show would be much less proficient at the former without the latter. And that’s our next plain language lesson:
- In your documents and forms, inspire people to take action above all else. Say what you need to say to make that happen.
- To sow seeds of inspiration, don’t hedge. Don’t lean on safe, controlled legal language (keep it in the small print if the lawyers say you have to).
- Don’t be afraid to use big, dramatic language where appropriate.
3. Hamilton: An American Musical
Let’s get one thing off the bat right away: I’m not going to tell you to convert your government materials into hip hop lyrics à la Hamilton (I’m not going to tell you to not do it, however…). Hip Hop stylings aside, this revered musical can definitely teach us at least one great lesson about plain language.
In the opening musical number, we learn all about Alexander Hamilton’s life. We also learn about the role each character has to play, right down to their most climactic, life and death moments. From a storytelling perspective, you might scream, “SPOILER ALERT” (if your history books and an iconic milk commercial hadn’t already done the deed). But in this case it works. It sets the stage and hits you with a bang right off the bat. And there’s your final plain language lesson:
- Drop the strict adherence to chronology. We don’t need to know about the legislative or organizational origins that led to this form or piece of content.
- Deploy what’s called in fiction “in medias res.” AKA, start in the middle of the action, without preamble.
- Give me the basics I need to know right away. Find the stuff that will grab me, get my attention, and set the stage for the information that follows.
The Main Plain Language Takeaway
Across all three of these examples, here’s the common element: when you’re creating a document or piece of content, the goal is not to give someone all of the information. We don’t need people to be experts on big banks, census rules, congressional budgeting, the federalist papers, or revolutionary history. We don’t need them to be foremost experts on what you do either, whether its public works, zoning laws, regulation, or something else entirely.
But we need people to care. We need them to know why it matters. And we need them to get invested, engaged, and inspired. That’s what the storytellers behind the works above did. When you put plain language to work, you can do it too.