Redesigning The Way We Communicate

Using Human Language

It occurred to me one day at work that all of our signs/posters for clients were a little authoritarian. Whilst relevant and informative, they contained a lot of ‘don’t’, ‘mustn’t’, ‘can’t’ etc. with threats of some sort of punishment if the rules are broken.

It’s not like we planned to banish the clients to the hills forever but still the threats were there, little insidious ones that ensured that everyone reading them would know that we have the upper hand. We had fallen into the power trap of ‘them and us’. And this is so damaging for all concerned.

So, I decided to look at the way we communicate to those we support, focusing on written materials.

I started with talking to the clients and using a sign we have in our laundry room as an example, I asked what they thought of it. Universally, the view was that it was a bit like being in prison; lots of orders and threats if they didn’t obey. From there we redesigned the sign and ensured that the message was the same without the threats.

We discussed layout; bullet points were favoured as they split the conversation into small chunks. Words like ‘please’ were used and where possible, a bit of humour was interjected; the client’s lives are depressing enough without having to read a depressing instruction from us.

Pictures were liked but only if they could fit onto the same page — that was made very clear. Signs should all be on one A4 page, any more will lead to none of it being read at all.

From the laundry sign, we moved onto the IT suite and this caused lots of discussion. I know why it is so structured; those computers cost lots of money and we don’t want a cup of tea spilt, or pornography being viewed leading to the service being withdrawn.

The clients laughed at me and I realised the sign was actually very patronising. These men and women are fully grown adults and can understand the costs involved. They also wouldn’t want to ruin a service that they need and appreciate.

Again we redesigned the sign, this time in plain English with sensible instructions for the use of the PC’s and it is now up on the wall, replacing the previous one. More evaluation needs to happen with clients who weren’t involved in the creation so that we can see if it really is fit for purpose. If it isn’t, we will tweak it and try again.

This got me thinking. It’s all very well constantly focusing on the needs of our clients, but what about the staff team? Do our internal policies and procedures also make silent threats?

I started with our confidentiality policy and I was immediately struck by the amount of long words and jargon used. I understand that there is an essential message to get across but I wondered if the policy could be made much easier to read.

I opened the original policy side by side with a blank word document and simply reworded it to create a new one. As with the client signs, I avoided bullying phrases and cut out hundreds of words. I also ensured that the spacing made it easy to read but that it still said everything that needed to be said.

I then tackled our drug and alcohol policy and surprisingly found it harder than the confidentiality one as it has legal jargon inserted and they seemed very relevant. But again, I did manage to greatly reduce the word count.

The final step is to ask staff to read it. Does it read well? Do they understand what is being said? Did they fall asleep?! Reading policies and procedures is so boring but it is also very important and one thing I hope I have achieved is to write in a way which is polite and shows that they are working for a caring organisation. If not, I have failed and will take another look.

If I have made a positive change, the aim is to amend every single document we use in my organisation. I want to create a shift in how we communicate, be it written or oral. I want polite, clear and accessible documents — ones that people actually read and most importantly, the reader feels that we care about them as individuals.