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Recruitment 411: Plain Language Please

For those of us in recruitment, plain language can be the difference between a message that grabs a job seeker’s attention, and a message that is literally lost in translation.

Every good govie knows plain language is not only good sense – it’s the law.

The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was signed by President Obama on October 13, 2010. This legislation not only requires all federal executive agencies to use plain language in official documents, but also requires agencies to provide training and oversight to ensure employees are familiar with plain language… and use it.

Learn more about the Plain Writing Act of 2010 here.

It’s imperative to use straightforward vocabulary to ensure you are thoroughly disseminating your message.

See, that’s ridiculous. That’s just a pompous way of saying: Plain language is the key to successful communication.

Whether you’re writing a job announcement, an agency brochure, internal training guide, a website page – or a blog, of course – writing in a conversational style is the best way to make sure you are clearly communicating the intended message.

Here are some and over complicated terms to avoid along with some simple substitutes:

additional added, more or other

advantageous helpful

converse talk

elect choose

requires needs

impacted affected

Some quick tips to help you keep plain language in mind:

If it’s jargon, junk it.

See an acronym, delete it – spell things out.

What are some of your tips for making sure messages are written in plain language?

Recruitment 411 is the official blog of the IRS Recruitment Office.

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“Decimate” means to reduce by 10%. “Literally” means, well, literally. So an expression on the order of “That staffing report literally decimated my thinking” is just, well, dopey.

Allison Merkley

I have to play devils advocate on this: even though I fully agree that some “Federalese” is too dense for even very literate people to understand, dumbing down our language to the lowest common denominator is no way to run a government.

I see far to many people who lack basic vocabulary not to shudder a little bit when I see some people discuss “plain language”. Some adjectives, though different than what we use on a web blog, have nuances that are useful and FUN to use. Please don’t get me wrong: I totally agree that when recruiting, language must be eye-catching, easy to understand, and gramattically correct. But that does NOT mean we have to go around talking like 10-year olds. The English language is diverse, don’t be afraid to use it a bit.

Ann Mosher

In explaining plain language to subject matter experts (SMEs), I like to share the old Mark Twain quip:

“I’d have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time.”

Plain language is deceptive. The brain doesn’t have to work hard to understand it, and you rarely need to re-read a document that meets these standards, so many subject matter experts do not recognize that it is not easy to write easily understood prose. But “plain” does not mean simple or easy.

Before getting into endless cycles of revisions and negotiation splattered across a document in a rainbow of tracked changes, writers and editors should talk with SMEs about plain language. It took most folks years to learn to write like a bureaucrat (no matter their field of expertise), and unlearning it takes time, too.

Kudos to IRS for some of the best-written federal job descriptions I’ve seen.

Wendi Pomerance Brick

In my “customer-focused writing” module, we have the students bring in form letters and re-write them from their customer’s point of view. We look at everything above and other key points. For example, you’d be surprised how many letters go out with no one noted to call if there are questions or the person needs additional information!

Another argument in favor of focusing on plain language communications is because when we don’t we create a scenario of “why are our customers irritated – we did this to ourselves!” Engineering out bad impressions helps us create the optimized customer experience we’re all looking for.

Molly Moran

@ErikErickson – Agree.

Also, avoid business cliches. Some of my favorite (least favorite) examples:

  • “Moving forward” – Really? Because I assumed we were moving backward.
  • “Impacted” – Sounds painful.
  • Some variation on “in today’s media-saturated world….” We’re all living in that same world. I assume you’re not speaking to ghosts or future historians, so you can just skip that reference.
  • “[Go to our] SharePoint site” – have any of you noticed this in your agencies? No one says, “Visit our .NET site” or “See our Drupal site.” Instead of prefacing the site with the software it runs on, wouldn’t it be more useful to note the name of the site in question or even the audience it addresses? For example: “Visit our intranet site” or “Go to X Bureau site.” I still haven’t figured out why everyone in my agency says “SharePoint site” now.
  • “One stop shop” – No, no, no. Diversify your consumerism, my friends. We’re networked, right? Many parts loosly coupled, and all that. Go for a rich ecosystem with a robust search. Stephen Jay Gould would be proud.

I’m sure there are others I hate, but that’s all I can think of right now. 🙂

Andrew Krzmarzick

@Molly – Had to laugh at your second bullet. Painful indeed:


1. Pressed firmly together, in particular.
2. (of a tooth) Wedged between another tooth and the jaw.
Molly Moran

Even more important than cliches and unnecessarily complicated vocabularies, however, is the problem of passive voice. When one writes in passive voice (as opposed to active voice), one obscures the subject of the sentence. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is: rhetorically, when we speak or write in passive voice, we appear to be shirking our responsibility or covering for others.

Here’s an example:

“I made a mistake.” –> Active voice. The subject is “I” — you know who is responsible.

“A mistake was made.” –> Passive voice. The subject is not identified. Who made the mistake? We don’t know.

This is a blatent example, but I see it all the time to poor effect. “Guidance will be issued.” Um, who is issuing the guidance? Who should I contact if weeks go by and I see no guidance? Or, “A decision was made.” Well, whose decision was that? How much importance should I attach to that decision? Etc. You can see why people like using passive voice — it lets them off the hook, should they not get around to issuing guidance or if people don’t like the decision they made. But in government (especially) we have a responsibility to accountability. After all, there is no faceless bureaucracy without the hundreds or thousands of (faceful?) people who run things. Let’s put a face on our communication and reinstill the humanity (literally) in our institutions.


First tip: find a way to get your general counsel or solicitor’s office to buy into plain English–otherwise legalese reigns supreme.

p.s. I agree with the comment about misuse of the word “impact”, for which my agency is probably as responsible as anyone. Whatever happend to good old “effect”?

Molly Moran

@Allison – I think we’re all in agreement here. I find it’s the cliches and the obfuscating vocabularies that are the boring aspects of our language – not the other way ’round.

@Andrew – how about “irregardless”?

@Ann – I really like your point. In my job, my colleagues and I are working to help people develop what we are calling “informal inside voices” to use when speaking to colleagues en masse. We’re really good at the cleared formal language, and even semi-formal, but we struggle with mass communication (such as announcements) that are informal yet professional. I’d consider all the comments here in this discussion to be informal yet professional. You’re right that this manner of speaking/writing doesn’t come naturally to most people who have spent their careers developing a formal (bureaucratic) style…

Eric Erickson

Kay – well said!

Molly – Another cliche that makes my skin crawl is “Only time will tell…” Also: “Easy as pie.” I’ve made a few pies in my day…and I’ve NEVER found the process to be easy!!

I would, however, disagree about SharePoint – only because in our agency, we have a main intranet site along with primary intranet sites for each division. Then we also have a SharePoint site where we store documents for our branch…plus multiple other SharePoint sites which can be accessed by certain employees. We have so many internal sites, we need to be very speicifc.

Sebastian James

Now if we can kill off consultant-speak, we’ve really got something! Don’t get me wrong, I like my syllables. But in some situations, the more syllables I hear, the more I think I’m going to be charged; or the less work I think the person is going to do.

BTW, Andrew “let’s say it like this” makes my skin crawl. Please…can you just say it. Unless you’re going to stand on your head and say it–because then you’d be saying it like “this”!

Fernando Beltran

Omit needless words

When you are done with your first draft cut the text in half

Show to your 9 year old. If he can understand it others will be able to understand it too


Simply put, I try to write as though I am speaking to the person. Encouraging others to do this when they are writing takes a lot of “performance anxiety” out of their process.

Jacqueline Pearce Garrett

@Molly, thank you for your comments about the passive voice. I believe you can learn a lot about a person or team by the way they write. @Ann M., I could not agree more about the [worthwhile] effort it takes to use plain language.

My favorites writing-isms: 1) It’s always about the audience. Sometimes, jargon is necessary because the specificity is necessary and meaningful to the audience. Sometimes, jargon is overused. 2) The communicator is responsible for ensuring the message of the communication is understood. That means understanding if your email will be one of twenty or one of 200 for the receiver, and adjusting your message accordingly. 3) At risk of stirring the anti-acronym crowd… BLUF, anyone?