Complicated language made clearer

Annetta Cheek


Kai Ryssdal: Somewhere on our marketing materials I think Marketplace is described as being business news for the rest of us. We explain what are often complicated business stories in ways that are, hopefully, easy to understand. Unfortunately, a lot of the communications we get in everyday life, whether it's a news stories or letters from your bank or a new government program, are hopelessly confusing. Anybody who's ever tried to read their health or car insurance policies knows what I'm talking about.

There is an organization dedicated to fixing that. It's called Center for Plain Language. They're hosting the first ever awards for the use of good and, also, not so good language next week. Director Annetta Cheek is with us in advance. Annetta, welcome to the program.

Annetta Cheek: Glad to be here.

Ryssdal: Tell me a little about the Center for Plain Language. How did you guys get things started?

CHEEK: Well, it started with a group of mostly federal employees who were tying to get the government to write more clearly and realized that we couldn't do everything we wanted to do from our positions within the government, so we formed a nonprofit organization with a few private sector folks. And our goal is to get government and business to communicate more clearly with citizens and customers.

Ryssdal: How's it going so far?

CHEEK: Oh, well, we have a lot of work left to do. You only need to open your mail and you know how we're doing.

Ryssdal: Who are the worst offenders would you say? In the world of corporate America who does it the worst?

CHEEK: I think the finance industry. Every time you get a letter from your bank, particularly, we all got letters recently about the effects of recent legislation on what interest rates they were going to be charging you, and they were pretty impenetrable.

Ryssdal: Not only is the print fine, but you can't understand it once you get your magnifying glass out.

CHEEK: Exactly, exactly. And some of that unfortunately is intentional.

Ryssdal: And basically what happens is we don't read this fine print, and then we're financial losers.

CHEEK: Absolutely. In this recent contest that our center ran, one of the entries for what we called the wonder mark -- which means we wondered what on earth were they thinking about when they wrote that -- was the end-user agreement for a very popular consumer communication product.

Ryssdal: Hold on, I have to stop you here. A consumer communication product? Come on, you're doing your own complex language there.

CHEEK: Well, all right. It was a Blackberry.

Ryssdal: There you go.

CHEEK: It was Blackberry. There we go. All right. If you read it carefully you would see that it said these are our policies today, but we might change our policies tomorrow. And when you say that you agree to this policy, you're agreeing not only to the policies that we wrote today, which you can't read, but to any policy that we might write in the future. And by the way, we aren't going to tell you about those new policies, you have to come back to our website and read this agreement periodically so you know what you agreed to.

Ryssdal: Now we pride ourselves on this program of being able to speak relatively plain English when we're handed things like, I don't know, synthetic CDOs to decipher and to explain to the listening public. We sent you some samples of our writing. How did we do?

CHEEK: Well, your stories were pretty good. And the first one you sent me was very good.

Ryssdal: Remind us what that one was.

CHEEK: It was about controlling the value of currency.

Ryssdal: Yeah, so let me, just so folks know what we're talking about, I will you read you the actual introduction to that story that I wrote. So here goes, it was me, and I was setting up a story on currency trading, and here we go. "One country trying to control the value of its currency is really nothing new." So you object to the word "really" right there.

CHEEK: Well, yes, I don't have a really strong objection to it.

Ryssdal: Touche.

CHEEK: But yes, you don't really need it. But normally I find interviews like this to be in pretty good shape. And so you asked me to comment on this, and I was looking for things that could have made it a little bit better and that was one thing I found. A little further down you used the word "nefarious," which is one of my favorite words, but I might not have used it in a story on the radio. In print where people could look it up if they needed to -- fine.

Ryssdal: So as you get set to hand out these awards, what do you hope to gain by this? I mean you'll get some publicity, you'll do an event at the National Press Club, and then probably everybody is going to go back to being as confusing as we were.

CHEEK: I'm sure. And we know there's no magic bullet. We're trying to get the public to pay a little more attention to this and to object. I think the public just accepts this kind of stuff because they don't think anything is possible. And of course, something else is possible.

Ryssdal: Dr. Annetta Cheek from the Center for Plain Language in Washington. Dr. Cheek, thanks so much for your time.

CHEEK: Thank you very much, a pleasure to be here.

To see examples of complicated language simplified, and add your own, click here.


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