We Say It’s Lingo, They Say It’s Jargon: Using Plain Language to Connect with Our Customers

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Every government agency has its own language. At the Census Bureau, we use a variety of technical terms related to the work we do. Some are Census-specific while others come from the highly technical fields our employees specialize in, like statistics, demographics and economics.

Of course, these acronyms and terminology have an important purpose: They allow us to do our work more efficiently. If you’re sending an email, “ACS” takes a lot less time to type out than “American Community Survey.” But this language has a tendency to show up in our external communications as well – from emails to official documents. It’s a habit that’s hard to break, but doing so will ensure more engagement with our customers.

The American public has every right to understand the work we do for them. Plain language, required for federal communication with the public, makes our work more transparent and accessible. Keep in mind, simplifying the language does not mean “dumbing down” the content.

Simplifying language while preserving the technical underpinnings of a message can be a challenge — especially when you get pushback from your more technically-minded colleagues. Here are some things to emphasize to make sure plain language stays alive and well at your agency:

Get to the heart of the matter. The Census Bureau and other government agencies do complex work. Oftentimes, understanding what we do and its importance can be overwhelming for someone not in the weeds. Think simply about your message as a whole. What’s the most important part of it? Then think about each paragraph and sentence. What can you take out? What do people not need to know, then and there?

Minimize acronyms and other “government speak.” Think about every word and phrase in that briefing document you’re trying to translate for the general public. What everyday words will tell the story? Need to talk about a “data access and dissemination system”, or “DADS”? Change it to “a system for gathering and sharing data.” It may seem faster to use an acronym when a phrase appears over and over in a long document, but it’s important to keep in mind who your audience is and what will make the most sense to them. Sometimes not even an acronym at all.

Choose a “scannable” structure. A key to simplifying language is choosing a structure that enables you to be more concise in your messaging. Break up the document into logical sections that summarize key points of your message. Use headlines and sub-heads that are powerful and concise. Structure may seem distinct from language choice, but in fact the two are intricately connected. A straightforward structure helps with straightforward language.

When we work to simplify our language for the public, we further widen the lines of communication, allowing our customers to better understand us – and vice versa. By speaking their language, we can give the American public the information we owe them and the information they need.

If you want more information on plain language tips, feel free to read our Census infographic that tells the plain language story.

Through this Featured Blogger series I’ve taken a deep dive into the Census Bureau’s digital transformation. Everything from mobile apps and user-friendly websites, to being an agent of change and feedback loops. I’ve covered a lot of ground and I hope that what I’ve shared with you has given you some ideas that you can take back to your agency.

If there’s anything you want more information on, or that you’d like to know about our digital transformation and the work we do, please feel free to leave a comment on any one of my posts or visit Census.gov.

Stephen L. Buckner is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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