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Improve Your Writing Using Accessible Language

You may think that you are already using clear language in your work, but there are many ways in which bad writing habits can confuse and complicate your message. In this workshop we will learn how to use plain language to make documents, emails, web content, and social media posts more accessible. This approach to writing has benefits for most readers and can help you improve your communication with others.

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Transcript

Welcome to our workshop today. We're going to be talking about accessible language. This is a thing that kind of will seem - how to put it? - seem like one of those things, like, "Okay, I think I get how to use language. I'm an adult, I've grown up, I've been working on this for however long I've been alive," but there are some things that happen to us as we go throughout our lives where we kind of learn some bad habits, and what I'm going to do today is just to kind of talk about those, and you can still see, yes? Now that I've done full screen? Great.

I will just talk about those, talk about what are the barriers for accessibility with language specifically and go through some nice solves for some of the problems you might have, because this is important if you're writing content for anybody, especially if that content is going to be put in a public sphere like on the web.

So, a little introduction to who I am. I actually started out as a musician, for those of you who don't know me. I was a recording artist, and travelled around the UK and abroad giving gigs, played the piano, have done since I was four. Basically, my career didn't take off into the level that I thought it would! But, actually, it also kind of, as I learned more about music, I got really interested in the science behind it, and I actually went to do a degree in audio engineering. I whereas really interested in manipulating sounds and recording sounds, and really obsessed with working with tape and hardware, and, yeah, it was a lot of fun.

Not long after that, I traversed into being a computer scientist. I'm finishing my thesis now - hopefully, we will have a submission in the next month or two - on digital musical instruments and accessibility, so it is crossing over from my audio-engineering background and into accessibility in the world of computers, and how we can make digital instruments more accessible. That's a PhD that I'm doing with Mixed Reality Lab in Nottingham. When I was working on that, I kind of found myself as having a noise as an advocate for different things, so I worked on a lot of events about inclusion in technology, and I've then since become like a speaker on accessibility, and I've done lots of training to become a certified web accessibility specialist, and a few other things.

So now that's my full-time job. I'm an accessibility consultant, and that's what I do for various people, but mainly within the music industry. We have a slight delay. Come on. Eh! So in this workshop, what we're going to be learning about today is accessible language, so why is language an accessibility barrier? That is something I'm going to cover. The positive impacts for using accessible language. How to get started using accessible language, so how you can actually start today to remedy some of the things we might do. And then using accessibility language across different types of content, because we know, wherever we might be posting, or writing, it can change what - the style of how we are writing, so how do we mitigate that? And we are going to actually do some exercises to try it out for ourselves, so don't panic - you're not going to be tested on any of this. It's a little fun exercise to try out how we would go about doing these things for our work, and how to consider accessible language in terms of transforming language that's this is inaccessible to accessible.

Then, at the end, I'm going to give you a link to some resources so that you can take away and use them in your own work, so that will be something that you can go away and use, hopefully going forward, but you can always contact me. My Twitter handle is at the bottom of every slide, and my email I will put back at the end and it is also on all the resources I'm sending out to you today.

Let's look at why do we write? Let's think about the reasons we communicate using written text. You might have seen these terms before, because these are the very academic terms for writing, so expository writing, persuasive writing, and descriptive writing. What we are talking about here is helping people, persuading people, and informing people. So, the real thing is how to write for people in different contexts of what we want to achieve, but we should never really forget that our audience is people. So, when we use complex language, that is not inclusive to all people, and that is the thing we are going to think about today. So let's have a look.

Complex language is more difficult for people not just for people with disabilities - this isn't just an accessibility requirement - but there are lots of reasons why complex language can be more difficult, so if you have poor working memory, or are easily distracted, those things can mean that you don't read in the same way. When you don't read in the same way as anybody else, you can struggle with complex language. It can hold you up in a sentence, it can be something that is more distracting than useful in what you're doing.

You can also find that it is difficult for people who are slower at read ing or processing that information, and people who have difficulty identifying the main points from a long passage of text. You will find that the more complex language you use, the more you create this difficulty. Anybody that has a very literal understanding of language, and this works in different neurological conditions, so the autistic community, you might find if you're describing something and you're not using a very literal description, you will catch people out and they will struggle to understand the instruction you're giving them. If you're reading in a rush, as many of us are, or reading on a phone, a tablet, or a device that is just not suited and set up for proper reading, or reading in depth, and, if you speak more than one language, actually, that's a common thing for just language processing. So we end up like having to re-read things quite a lot if we speak more than one language.

So why on earth do we use complex language when we write? Why are we doing this to people? It is what we were taught to do in school, I guess. You were told to find a word like - like, you were told to expand your vocabulary, or at least I was in the British school system, and getting to a certain grade level, you're expected to use more complex words, so you're trained and trained all the way through to academia, and I'm actually having to undo a lot of that right now in writing my thesis because my thesis is about accessibility, and I will be damned if it is written inaccessibly!

So it is one of those things that you train and train and train, and you think about, "That is something I need to do" because we want to sound intelligent. Some of the time, that is a motivation for why we use complex language. We will choose a longer word, or a more impressive word, or, me and Kevin will often have a conversation and one of us will go, "That's a good word", because just when you do that, it's like, "That's a really interesting word" and it just is one of those things that we adopted because, I don't know, we want to sound more intelligent, but actually, I think it's a really difficult task to explain something that has complexity in a very accessible way. I think that is to me is a sign of higher intelligence more than anything.

When we're talking to a technical audience, we feel we have to use technical words. We feel we will be pulled up if we don't use the correct terminology, or dumb down - I hate phrases like that - or if we seem to simplify things or over simplify things, we are concerned that that the audience won't receive it very well. When we use industry-specific words or things that we term jargon in English, those things we think we need to use, and so we will use them and they might add complexity to our sentences, and in a will be something just for something that we feel like we have to do.

There is some really interesting research about this that, even if you go to an academic reading level, and there is still a preference towards plain language, so even if you're talking to industry experts, often they prefer to read something in plain language than the technical-speak that they're used to, and that is just because it is easier, and it is just something that is a kind of a misconception that just because you have this technical specialist, or specialist in a subject, they will want to read it in academic-speak, and often who wants to read a paper in academic-speak? I don't think I've met anybody who really enjoys that process. There is a lot of re-reading making sure you're gasping what is being put into the essence of the paper, and it takes time even for somebody who is an expert in the field.

We are also told not to use certain words, so, if we are avoiding certain words, we might choose a more complex word to put in its place. That can be a problem in itself. We could be following a content style writing guide which you might have if you're working in a business environment, you're working on the content side, and there might be certain words that are key words or SEO words - "search engine optimisation" words - that you try to fit into the content you're writing, and that can be a reason that you introduce complexity.

And, generally, like, this is genuinely why we do it most of the time is we're writing without really thinking about our audience. That's not a negative, and that is not an accusation, it's just a lot of the time we write and we review it based on our own biases, so we're not thinking about the person who will be reading it at the other end, and that can be a problem because we read it and think I'm happy with my tone of voice, I'm happy with the way that sounds, and you review it with people who are potentially at the same - well, within the same industry as you, you review it with people that are at the same academic level as you, you review it across an audience that is kind of - I'm forgetting words - people who are the same. So there is not a diversity in the audience that you're actually reviewing it with, and then if you're writing for the general public especially, that is something that we forget to this about.

So, yes, all of these actually cause quite a lot of barriers to language and products as well. The issue that we have across the world is that one in five of your potential audience could be excluded by complex writing, because this is reported statistics, but one in five people have a form of disability, and, as it stands at the moment, like - well, that is figure is reported statistics as well, I really hate pulling it out because, actually, I think the number is a lot, lot more, because there is a lot of stigma around disability and reporting, and there is a lot of reasons why somebody - like, for example, myself, I'm neurodivergent, but I've never reported that in my entire life because I've never really known I was neurodivergent until much later on in my life.

Having attention deficit means that reading is one of those things for me as well. I prefer accessible language, but I didn't really understand that that was a thing for me until recently. And I think many people exist like that. Many people have perhaps had something that they've worked through school, people with dyslexia don't necessarily write it down everywhere they go and report it to statistics, but it is something that is very effective via the language that we use every day in our writing styles.

So accessible language, we put the readers' needs first. We allow readers to understand the message the first time they read it. This is really key because it means you can increase your reading times. It appeals to a wider audience.

Internationalisation is another big factor of accessible language. If you're using plain language and accessible language, that generally gets translated easier. It creates less confusion for the reader, and it proves the international readability as I just mentioned there because it's more easily translated, but it is also, when - in English, especially, you're using this form of English that is easier to translate mentally as well as translate for anybody doing a service. You're decreasing the reading times over what you're putting online, and that is really important, actually, because the reading time for websites is really, really small, so complexity of sentences and everything like that adds to reading time and, honestly, people just don't stay on websites long enough for that at the moment, according to research.

It increases customer engagement as well, and it benefits all kinds of people. I'm not about to tell you that accessibility is for everyone, because that's a very dangerous route to go down in terms of an ableist view, because we erase the people that accessibility is for, but what you can find is that when you focus on providing accessible language for especially the people that need that language to be clear, you will find, as I said, that the preference, even in the highest academic community can be that plain language is the preference. And so there is a fringe benefit, but it's not what you should be focusing your work on. You should be focusing on the needs of the people that require it.

If you need to sell this internally at your company, I just have some quick statistics for you about accessibility. So, companies that prioritise digital inclusion like this have twice as likely to have higher shareholder returns, so that is great for business, right. They have 28% higher revenue - something that's been studied in the UK - so specific from the UK, a report from Accenture, the Disability Inclusion Advantage, and they see 30% better performance in economic profit margins. It really does, if you need a business case for this, there is a high business case for it, because, you know, being twice as likely to increase something, or have a 30%, or third more revenue for something is not something that any C level would say, "We're not interested in that." So, if you need a business case, please do use those figures for them.

Let's talk about how to get started and how you can learn how to do this. I've been using the term "accessible language" in this, because I feel it's more descriptive for what we are talking about and trying to achieve. The common term you'll find across the web when you're searching for this stuff is plain language or plain English. This is the term that a couple of campaigns for it as well, and this is the term that's been adopted for it. But essentially to me, it is accessible language, and that's how I'm referring to it today.

There are other things that are parts of the accessible language that I'm going to include that stretch towards layout and other things about the way we present language, that you might not find in information about plain language specifically, so that's why I've bundled it into this term today. Know that they are kind of, to use a complex word, synonymous - they have the same meaning to me. There we go.

So, the first rule of thumb is use short and concise sentences. Stick to one main idea in a sentence. We're very used to being coached into providing a reason, then a comma, and then an explanation, and extending on an idea, and using complex punctuation, like sticking a semicolon in there to make it exciting. Sticking to one idea per sentence really helps focus, and it means also your text can be broken down by other people, and pulled out into spaces with like a much more ease, and can be explained to others with ease as well. So, any chance that you have to break up a long sentence, please do. If you notice that you're using a lot of commas, or you've got a sentence that has an "and" or a long list in there, or you've used in a semicolon, think about why you're using it, think if there is a way to make the sentence into two or three to make it easier to digest.

Remove any unnecessary words. I'm terrible for this. I add like lots of ... the one I think is like "mostly", or I try and accentuate words a lot, especially when I'm doing academic writing. I just realised it's not ever really necessary to do that, and to add these words in beforehand, just ups the word count, and it doesn't add anything to it. When you're reading things back, think about what you're doing with those. The goal is try to average 15 to 20 words for written content, so this is anything that you'll probably be reading in print, but when we come to the web, and because of the web reading times, we actually want this to be around seven to ten words, because anything longer than that and you'll find that people will start to trail off your content because it gets too complex to read online.

The next main point is say exactly what you mean. You're like, I think I am. I think I'm doing the job of saying what I mean! Sometimes you are. Sometimes you might not be. Here are some other reasons why. If you're not using easy-to-understand words, if we're choosing a complex word or jargon, that can be something that is not inclusive, or it adds a barrier, adds a complexity, especially if we're writing for the general public. So avoid jargon for the general public. You can, though, if you're writing for a technical audience that you want to employ language, if you have an understanding of certain terms that are universally known, there is no reason, well, within that audience, there is no reason that you should not use them. It's just that if you are going to do something like that, and you're going to put in a technical term, the very first time that you use that technical term, explain it. And then that doesn't isolate anybody who might have come across your content, and isn't from that audience, and or is from that audience but hasn't herd that term before. There are lots of time you might have come across something and thought I haven't heard that word to describe something.

You also just need to consider the meaning of words, because there are some words, especially in English, we are terrible for this in English, to have dual meanings for words. Like the exact same word can be used in several sentences for different meanings. One of my favourites is "issue" can be used a term to mean I'm going to issue you with a library card, or there's an issue at the petrol station, or there is ... it is used in different contexts, and the con texts change the meaning. So, when you're writing, especially for people who might have been learning English as a second language, this is something where they may only have heard a word in a specific context. So if you know that that could have a dual meaning, then you're going to lose some of the audience, or at least you're going to confuse them for a short amount of time while you figure out why we're using this word they've only ever heard in this context.

The other thing is to avoid things like simile , metaphors, and idioms. Anyone who reads literally, idioms and metaphors, no matter how common they are, they will be read by people in their littoral sense and they just don't make sense, especially if you're internationally working with people. I love finding out what I call "Britishisms" are amongst my friendship group because I've never heard of like a term. Even in the UK, it's very funny: there are words and terms that I have found I grew up in the planned and north of the UK, and I have words in my vocabulary and meanings for those words that Kevin, growing up in London, didn't have. He doesn't understand them! And I said, you know, it's this! And he's like, what! So, you know, anything that you might be falling into something that is a simile, or colloquialism, again, complex word for no reason, those local language things, be mindful that you're checking for those. There is a really nice term as well when we're talking about using complex ity, and hiding the meaning of what we are saying, and it's called "camoflanguage". This is an actual term, when you hide the true meaning of what is being said through overly complex words. You might find this is like a tactic used by some companies in terms of additions, things like that. We use overly complex language because we want to hide the simplicity of something, or hide the goal, and, yes, I like "camoflanguage" as a word!

The other point we have a lot in plain language is something that you might be aware of doing or not doing, but using the active voice. If you've not learned about passive and active voices, to be honest, if you've been out of school for a while, these are the things that you kind of taught to use in school but not taught with this terminology. So you're using something that is the subject, the verb, and then the object. So this can be - I'm going to use a simple sentence here. I'm going to say, "Amy gave the workshop." So that is me, the subject. "Giving" is the verb and the object is the workshop. The way that people change things into passive voice is when people go, "Oh, the workshop was given by Amy." That's just a simple sentence, but we've added two additional words in there to say the same thing. When you get into more complex word structures, using the passive voice means you have to add more words for it to make the same sense as the active. It's thinking about we had the discussion, or we discussed this. It is changing the way that we talk a little bit.

The other thing is this is much quicker to read. If you write these things down, the difference in the sentence length, even at that short level, it is noticeable, so they are quicker to read when you use the active voice. They use fewer words. Sentences use fewer words when we talk about the active voice, and they void something called "nominalisations" which is another complex word for when we take a verb that is normally in a verb form, and we make it into a noun.

So, you will find these happen a lot across corporate websites. "Apply" is one. So "application" and "apply". "Please make an application for a loan. Please apply for a loan" the difference is huge. And, when we do this thing when we change the verb into a noun, we add so much detail. So, an example like, "The implementation of the method has been done by a team". "A team has implemented the method". The verb is "implemented". That makes sense: the team implemented the method. When we have to say it the other way round, say it into a noun, we have to say the "the implementation of the". It has to be that. I cannot tell you how much difference that sentence looks to read. The other one is "discussed" and "discussion". There are many examples of these. "Introduced" to "introduction". Aim "Amy introduced us", or "the introduction was made by Amy". It's just such a longer way of talking, but we seem to want to default to this when we are writing specifically.

It's not something we would often find we do in language when we are speaking amongst people, so one of the reasons - like one of the good ways to do this is imagine that you're talking to somebody across a table and think about how would you actually say that rather than how do I word this so it is - how do I word this? Because when you're writing, you want to include these extra words.

Again, in academic writing, this is rife, because you don't want to necessarily talk in a first-person voice. But you don't have to to use the active voice, either. So, yes. It just - they're problematic, because they create this need for additional words, and that adds to our sentence length, and just adds for the potential of confusion as well.

So the other thing that I feel is more, as I say, talking about language in general, is talking about arranging your writing in a clear manner as well, with clear headings and subheadings help people to navigate text, especially people who are reading something through online to find the answer to a question, they're going to scan for these things before they actually look at any of your content.

Using lists to split up important information, especially if you want a response to important information in any way, so, I use this? In asynchronous communication a lot. If I have a lot of questions I'm going to ask one person I'm going to put in a Slack message or anywhere else, I will use bullet points to make sure that it easy for someone to read and understand. Because, if somebody doesn't do that for me, I will often miss a question or two, or miss a point. It does, it makes it easier and it makes it more obvious that there are these other things that we are addressing today. Make any instructions really, really clear. If it is require somebody to do something, you have to make sure that that is obvious to the reader. And break large amounts of writing into smaller paragraphs. So think about the way that it is organised in terms of like making sure that you don't have this big block of text that's really difficult to search through and scan through.

The other thing that you can do is you can test your content as well before you put it anywhere, so there are some testing indexes more accessible and plain language that measure different things. There is the Gunning Fog Index, the Flesch Reading Ease Scale, and the SMOG grade. Niece are some that are in use. I enjoying the SMOG grade, because the break-out of the acronym there is "the simple measure of gobbledygook"! It is technically caused as well, but it has got such a silly name. I do enjoy it! These things can be tested through online tools.

So online tools exist for each of these. I've actually provided some links to those in the resources that I've given you. They are just like copy-pasted - believe me, they're not the most attractive of websites. Definitely the people who work in these kinds of word spaces have very accessible language about their sites, but their design leaves much to be desired. But they work, and that is all you know for testing content, is that that you need to know. Some of these online tools will assess against all of them, some against one or two of these. Popping them in and seeing okay, is there anything that I can do to make that easier to read? Some will make suggestions as well.

If you're using Word, this used to be the truth in Google Docs as well, but it does removed - I don't know why - but there is a readability score that goes into Word. It is a similar place to where your word count is. You get a readability score in there. That is based on things like the Flesch Reading Ease Scale. That gives you like a percentage grade, and you can kind of figure out whether you want to work through that or what you can do to make that better.

How do we do this across different content types? We will talk about some specific things for content. So social media, please avoid replacing words with symbols. This even extends to using an ampersand instead of "and". That is actually harder to read. I know we try our best to do what we can with limited word or character counts if we are tweeting, and the temptation to replace words like "and" with an ampersand is very high, but actually you make your reading more complex doing this. Try to avoid it where you can. Avoid excessive use of symbols as well where you might have used an em-dash, an elongated dash instead of a comma. These are common things that I've done in my lifetime that I realise aren't the most accessible. It just complicates the readability.

Use the correct punctuation where you can. So, most people don't think about writing online. They use this - there is like a lot of language we use online, we often do in "net speak", or "web speak" and that can be forgetting all things about punctuation, and all things about capitalisation and proper written form, things that we are taught to do. If you do forget to do these things, that makes things more complex to read, especially for someone like me, if there is not a pause in the sentence, I can read it so many ways. And just an example is just like having a comma in the right place completely changes the emphasis. Avoid contractions of words. Avoid putting - there is a term "Slurvian" where you might say "gimme" for "give me" and those things pop up online quite a lot.

Stop contracts words in a slang manner, but even contracting words in ways we expect using "don't" instead of "do not" it is clearer to read "do not" than "don't". Capitalisation matters. In English especially, if I write "polish" and I write it without a capital, it's "polish", but with a capital, it's "Polish". If I'm talking about Polish culture, the last thing I want to do is make that a not capitalised letter and talk about polish culture, because it's two very different things! We don't want to do that.

Make sure that you're checking your capitalisation where it matters. On top of this, hashtags. Really they really matter for that as well. If you capitalise every word in your hashtag, that will actually work better for a screen reader. So, just know that doing that, not only makes it more readable, because having an mash of words together in a hashtag is difficult anyway, but having a capitalisation makes nor sense to screen readers as well, so screen readers will read those more correctly because otherwise there's no definition to a computer, or a programme that is running a screen reader. It will just try to read it as, you know, as much as you can in one, like, well, it will make a mess of it, believe me.

And, absolutely do not use emojis as a replacement for words. I'm not saying don't use emoji, but don't use them for a replacement of words, because that can be where it gets complex. Emojis often help us convey that emotional content to what we are saying. But it doesn't help if we just replace them. If you're using them excessively, these are another complete source of irritation for people who have screen readers that are just reading all of these emojis in a thing.

I was approached by somebody who DM'ed me on Twitter about this because I used to have a lot of emoji in my display name, and somebody called me out saying, "You say you work in accessibility but you do this?". Yes, do you know what? That sucks! Sugar! I should not have done that. I didn't think, and I didn't think about my general audience. Again, we can all make these mistakes from time to time. The point is just to know that we can work towards improving them.

In emails, keep the subject line concise. I think we all try to do this, but this is something that you definitely should do so people understand exactly what you're trying to approach them about. Avoid excessive use of words this this is as we've gone through, keep your sentences short, but there's a term for excessive use words called "logorrhoea", someone who is loquacious. They might throw a lot of words in there out of politeness, and we do it in emails because we are approaching a subject that is difficult, or a work concept we are dancing around. This is something we should definitely try to avoid to do, and try to keep those short sentences.

Apply the concept for reading of the word, this is online, and try to keep seven to ten words. Try to not dance around things. Try to really recognise when you're putting in those unnecessary words. Again, using the list split of information, as I said, even transfers to business communications that aren't through emails, but through Slack. I do this a lot.

And avoid placing words inside of other words. This is called "tmesis" and again something that I find Brits do, like fan-bloody-tastic. We use it in language, or we say "un-freaking-believable", and we say stuff in our language, and in email, we take that correspondence - we take that conversational correspondence level there, and we will use hyphens in between the things. High to avoid doing that, if that is something that is something that you use in your vocabulary anyway. And for web content, we come back to the importance of headings and subheadings.

If you're writing for the web, but not necessarily the person who is programming that, or doing the front-end development, you just need to make sure that these are made clear to the people who having go to do that and not using something like style sheets to change the appearance of these. They need to be done programmatically. So they need to have something called semantic HTML assigned to them so that people who are navigating with assistive technology know that that is a heading, and that is a subheading, and then you can add styles or fonts.

Keep sentences short, seven to ten words, and use contextual link text. I have a badge from an accessibility conference which is a white badge on a square and it has "click here" in blue underlined, because it's a trope within the accessibility community. I've definitely done this. I've definitely had this in a website "read more" click here, and that is the bit of text that I've highlighted for the listening. Actually, when you have ten of those within a web page, there are a couple of things that you can do with assistive tech and one is navigate via links.

If you have ten links that all say "read more", "read more", it's like I don't have a clue but I'm navigating via that way, so that can be a way that people do generally navigate because they want to look for the useful information first. They don't want to read through the text to know where they're headed, and it is something that is afforded to somebody who might not be using a screen reader who doesn't have the requirements of that being read out to them, who can see the visual content because of the layout. It is obvious for the layout for somebody who doesn't, that's a frustrating things to come across. If you're going to do that, think about is there a way that I can say more about the subject that we've just been talking about? More about synthesis. I know where that link is going to take me now. I didn't before when it just said "read more".

Use left-aligned text online. This is something that again is an arrangement thing, but if you use anything like justified text, or centralised text, you can come across something where we call them like "white rivers" in text, or gaps in text. If you're using magnification and something is justified or not left-aligned, you will find there will be big gaps. When you magnify it, you can get lost because you come across a sea of the background colour or whatever it is, and you can't navigate to where you just came from, because it doesn't give you any indication of where the next word is.

Whilst you're doing like thinking about your arrangement, if there is content that you can support with images where appropriate, this is actually very helpful for people with dyslexia, and people who think in a more image-focused way. So, yes. That is like a whirlwind summary of the things that you can do. If you have any questions that you would like to ask me right now, we've got some time for that. If we don't have questions, we've got a little bit of time to get ourselves to drink and a refresh, and then we can go into our activities. So, I guess I'm opening the floor.