When I first started thinking about what I should write about for this year’s edition of MSW Elements, I knew that it should have something to do with social media. I wrote about the use of social media in waste organizations in last year’s edition of Elements as an example of two-way communication. Two-way communication is about engaging in meaningful dialogue with our customers. One-way communication, on the other hand, is about pushing our monologue on our customers.
I’m also heavily influenced by the topic of clear print guidelines right now and the role they play in readability. Recent changes to the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) are shining a bright light on clear print and clear design guidelines to better our communications.
Clear print, clear design, and plain English are concepts that I originally wrote off as mutually exclusive from social media. I knew I wanted to write about both topics, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to bring what I thought to be different topics together into a cohesive article.
As it turns out, these topics are not mutually exclusive—far from it. Guidelines that make public information more accessible have a lot more in common with social media than I may have been inclined to believe.
Technology has shifted the way we communicate. The words, phrases, and sentence structures we use have evolved. They have changed and continue to change the way we communicate.
Changes have been ongoing with the evolution of technology, and there are many precursors to the current dialect of social media. Today’s dialect isn’t new; we were reading ticker tapes at the bottom of a TV screen before we were “texting” on our phones, and we were texting on our phones before we were “tweeting” on Twitter.
Social media networking websites accentuate, encourage, and propel these changes in the way we communicate forward. Thoughts, ideas, and concepts travel faster through online social networks than any form of traditional media. They travel faster through online channels than they do by newspaper, radio, or television.
We communicate “with,” not “at,” many people online through social networks. They are two-way communication channels. Social networking is as close to face-to-face communication as you can get online. They let us have conversations. We can spark a conversation without gratifying ourselves in monologue. We can watch as our customers steer the conversation allowing us to take a customized, more direct role than we have in the past with traditional media. Traditional media, like newspaper and television, assumes that all of our customers are asking the same question and looking for the same answer. We use traditional advertisements to provide generic answers. But we know that individual customers are asking individual questions. We tend to answer and provide details (information) about our own questions based on our own goals, rather than answering our customers’ questions. Sure, some questions are more common than others, and each of us could probably rhyme-off a Top 5 list without having to think about it too much. Yet, with traditional media we sacrifice sharing answers to all the other questions.
Social media is good news for the waste industry. At a time when the complexities of sustainable waste management need to be understood by pretty much everyone, including our customers, the far-reaching and low-cost nature of social media is a valuable tool in our toolbox.
Determining whether or not social media is right for you is a whole other exercise that I’m not going to get into. Conducting research and developing a strategy that includes the channels of communication that best fit your needs is an important part of the process that I don’t address in this article.
I want to focus on the importance of communicating in a clear manner. Our success depends on our customers understanding the product(s) and/or service(s) we are providing and what we are asking them to do with each or any or all of them. The more understanding people have about what we’re asking them to do, the more likely we’ll succeed. I’m talking about recycling programs; we’re asking people to sort their trash instead of throwing it all into the same bag or can. As subject matter experts, we see “the rules” as cut-and-dry. But they aren’t always easy to understand for people who don’t work in the waste industry. There are as many exceptions to the rules as there are rules themselves. It’s challenging to communicate what we want people to do. It makes it even more challenging for people to understand what we want them to do.
Providing Public Information That Is Clear and Accessible
Information about waste and recycling collection programs is, for the most part, public information. Everyone has the right to access public information. It’s in our best interest to provide information that is accessible to everyone. If we want to maximize participation and capture rates, we need to tell everyone, regardless of their age, education, gender, socioeconomic status, or cultural background.
Our organizations strive to come up with solutions to complex sustainable waste management problems. We rely on the best expertise available. It becomes our challenge to translate those solutions so that they can be understood by a target audience that includes “everyone.”
The marketing industry has a saying that if you “target everyone you’ll be targeting no one” (various sources). To effectively develop marketing materials that will reach out to the right people, knowing your target audience is important. Well-defined and well-informed target audiences produce knowledgeable ambassadors that can promote our message(s) for us. But we still have a responsibility to make our information readily available for all. While a strategic marketing campaign may target “the head of the household”, we cannot ignore homes where the head of the household is not responsible for the recycling.
This is why writing for readability is so important.
Authors will tell you that writing is the basis of all wealth. It certainly is the basis for all of our communication materials, regardless of who the intended audience is. It is easy to adapt materials for a variety of different target audiences if you have a solid foundation to begin with.
|Original word||Alternative word|
Accessible means, quite simply: “easy to approach, reach, enter, speak with, or use” (dictionary.com).
We’re trying to reach out to and approach our customers so that we can speak with them. Our goal is to get them to participate in our programs properly (the way we’ve designed them to be).
Accessibility is often associated with barriers for physically disabled people, but it is much more than that.
I’m interested in providing information that is accessible; SWANA’s Communication, Education, and Marketing (CEM) technical division is interested in knowing how to provide information that is accessible. We’ll leave the bricks-and-mortar aspects of accessibility with our colleagues that have the expertise to do so.
Accessibility standards benefit an audience far beyond those with disabilities and reach far beyond the scope of overcoming physical barriers. They benefit everyone and are instrumental in overcoming readability challenges.
Providing information in alternative, “accessible” formats may seem to be targeted at people with a disability, but shouldn’t be, any more than your son or daughter, your mother or father, you, or I. Accessibility standards for communicating, such as clear print guidelines, were developed so that disabled people have equitable access to public information. They are relevant to all of us, however.
|Original word||Alternative word|
|Aerosol can||Spray can|
|Commingled||Bottles, cans, and jars|
|Dispose||Get rid of|
|Fibers||Paper and cardboard|
|Source-separated organics||Food scraps|
“Readability shouldn’t be an afterthought when producing materials.”—Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
Readability measures how easy it is to read and make sense of printed words. Readability is affected by, among other things, how words are printed (type and size), how they appear (color and style) and what words are used (plain English).
Clear print guidelines provide a baseline for providing text in a readable format. They can be adopted by an organization as standard practice. “Large” print guidelines exceed the requirements of clear print guidelines and can be provided on an as-needed basis.
Clear print guidelines address the following characteristics of / for readability:
- Use high-contrast colors for text and background.
- Black text on a white or yellow background, or white/yellow text on a black background are good examples.
- Printed material is most readable in black and white.
- Restrict colored text to things like titles, headlines, or highlighted material.
- Point is the measurement for font size.
- Keep between 12 points for clear print materials and 18 points for large print materials depending on the font (point size varies between fonts.)
- Consider your audience when choosing point size.
- Leading is the space between lines of text.
- Make sure it’s at least 25% to 30% of the point size.
- This lets readers move more easily to the next line of text.
Font family and font style
- Avoid complicated or decorative fonts.
- Choose standard fonts with easily recognizable upper and lower-case characters.
- For all of your text, including titles and headings, use upper and lower case letters in combination
- Avoid displaying text in all caps.
- Arial and Verdana are good choices.
- Opt for fonts with medium heaviness and avoid light type with thin strokes.
- When emphasizing a word or passage, use a bold or heavy font. Italics or upper-case letters are not recommended.
- Don’t crowd your text; keep a wide space between letters.
- Choose a monospaced font (a font whose letters and characters each occupy the same amount of horizontal space) rather than one that is proportionally spaced.
- All body text should be left aligned.
- Justified text forces straight margins on both sides of a block of text and inserts uneven spaces between the words, making them harder to read.
Margins and columns
- Separate text into columns to make it easier to read, as it requires less eye movement and less peripheral vision.
- Space between columns of text should be large enough to be distinct.
- Flat pages work best for vision aids such as magnifiers.
- Use a matte or non-glossy finish to cut down on glare.
- Reduce distractions by not using watermarks or complicated background designs.
- Ensure the paper is thick enough to prevent show through
Clear design guidelines provide a baseline for providing the “look” of printed material in a readable format. Clear design guidelines address the following characteristics of readability:
- Use distinctive colors, sizes and shapes on the covers of materials to make them easier to tell apart.
- Text shouldn’t be overlaid on images.
- All text should be the same orientation on the page.
- Use color sparingly, in a consistent and deliberate way that reinforces the meaning of messages and enhances their impact.
- Verify that the color scheme and shades of color work well when the material is photocopied or printed in black and white.
- Choose colors that are appealing to the intended readers and free from unwanted connotations or problematic cultural significance.
Plain English (sometimes referred to more broadly as plain language) is a generic term for communication styles that emphasize clarity, brevity, and the avoidance of technical language—particularly in relation to official government communication.
“The intention is to write in a manner that is easily understood by your target audience, appropriate to their reading skills and knowledge, clear and direct, free of cliché and unnecessary jargon,” according to Wikipedia.
Examples of some common plain English translations can be seen above in Table 1.
Examples of some common plain English translations for waste industry terms are included above in Table 2
This is perhaps the most challenging aspect of writing for readability. It’s also the most critical factor when writing for readability. Regardless of print and design, written words are the building blocks of readability. Our choice of words determines how well our audiences understand what we are asking them to do.
We need to write for our readers, not for ourselves. We need to know our readers. The best way to make sure you take a reader-centered approach is to get help directly from our intended readers on what to say and how to say it. Then we can test the material by getting reactions directly from our readers.
Clear and effective written material attracts attention, holds attention, helps people understand the material and helps move them to action.
There are two popular readability indexes available that evaluate how “readable” a body of text is.
Gunning fog index—The Gunning fog index is commonly used to confirm that text can be read easily by the intended audience. Developed in the early 1950s by businessman Robert Gunning, it measures the readability of English writing by estimating the years of formal education needed to understand the text on a first reading. There are tools online, such as the calculator found at http://simbon.madpage.com/Fog/fog.cgi, which will calculate a Gunning fog index for you. When I tested this article, it came back with an index of 12.5, meaning you need about 12-and-a-half years of formal education to read and understand it.
Flesch-Kincaid readability test—The Flesch/Flesch–Kincaid readability tests are designed to measure comprehension difficulty when reading a body of English text. There are two tests, the Flesch Reading Ease, and the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level. Although they use the same core measures (word length and sentence length), they have different weighting factors, so the results of the two tests correlate approximately inversely: a text with a comparatively high score on the Reading Ease test should have a lower score on the Grade Level test. Both systems were devised by reading expert Rudolf Flesch. There are online tools, such as http://flesh.sourceforge.net/, that calculate Flesch scores. When I tested this article, it came back with a Reading Ease score of 47.76 and a Grade Level score of 10.63.
What do social media and readability have in common? Social media have essentially been built on the foundation of clear print guidelines, even if we don’t realize it.
Social media is about maximizing the number of people that get your message. Readability is about maximizing the number of people that “get” (understand) your message.
Social media is about reader-generated content. Readability is about reader-centered content.
Social media is about sharing information with people so that they can pass it on. Readability is about writing information for people so they remember it and pass it on.
Social media is about paring something down to its essence—sometimes in 140 characters or less. Readability is about writing clear, direct, succinct messages, choosing a font that is easy to read and displaying it in a format that is easy to understand and remember.
It doesn’t matter if we’re writing for a printed brochure or a blog post: Our messages need to be understood by our customers. We need them to understand what we’re asking them to do so that they can become equipped to do it. In our case, we are trying to get people to recycle.
We can think of how we relay messages in terms of longhand and shorthand writing. Longhand writing is where words are written out in full. Shorthand writing is handwriting using simple strokes, abbreviations or symbols that designate letters, words, or phrases.
Whereas writing to clear print guidelines could be considered writing “longhand,” tweeting the messages could be considered as writing “shorthand.”
Whether longhand or shorthand, the message remains the same: reduce, reuse, recycle.