September 18, 2011

Cognitive Fluency and Plain Language – 2

K.D. Hoffman has expertise in applying theoretical communication to real world endeavors. Her blog is Healthy Change Communications. This is a blog about health communications. Hoffman says, “It’s about using behavioral science to deeply understand specific audiences. With deep understanding, health communicators can engage and inspire change, whether in the individual or in society.”

A current series of blog posts addresses the idea of Targeting vs Tailoring communication. The second post is relevant to our discussion and offers some more introductory-level explanation of cognitive fluency.

Part Two: Engagement…or how to make it matter

“We process messages in two ways, via central or peripheral processing… When people have little interest in a message, they tend to process it peripherally. When processing peripherally, they don’t think about the arguments in the message but rather they use cues like attractiveness, reputation or credibility to guide their decision to perform a behavior….

Alternatively, central processing is energy consuming. It is only engaged in when a message is very important and relevant to the person and when the person has the intellectual or technical ability… Processing centrally requires careful listening and evaluation of message content… Central processing is more likely to lead to long-term and stable change.

One of the best ways to engage the central processing route is to make your message relevant to the audience.  Tailoring achieves relevance.”

The full series of posts is available here, and there is more to come:

Part One Part Two PartThree

Expertise as Peripheral Processing

Now consider this older, alternate perspective from our new lens of cognitive fluency.  It provides a hint of the transition to be made in our thinking about writing to make thinking easy for readers with different levels of contextual knowledge.

From Farnam Street blog, On expertness and intuition, An excerpt fromHerbert Simon:
“We have seen that a major component of expertise is the ability to recognize a very large number of specific relevant cues when they are present in any situation, and then to retrieve from memory information about what to do when those particular cues are noticed.

“Because of this knowledge and recognition capability, experts can respond to new situations very rapidly- and usually with considerable accuracy. Of course, on further thought, the initial reaction may not be the correct one, but it is correct in a substantial number of cases and is rarely irrelevant. We usually use the word “intuition” – sometimes also “judgment” or even “creativity” – to refer to this ability of experts to respond to situations in their domains of expertise almost instantaneously and relatively accurately. [these] skills have the same basis in knowledge and recognition capability.”

From Simon’s book, Models of My Life. For more: Solution by Recognition and Choice Under Uncertainty.


September 16, 2011

How Will Knowledge of Cognitive Fluency Change Plain Language

I’d like to invite you to join me in a conversation on how recent discoveries in cognitive psychology and neuroscience affect how we go about producing plain language and how we define or describe it.

Twenty years ago, we were saying to training groups that “recent brain research” was changing what we knew about how people process language. Now we are being told that the research in the past 10 to 15 years has dramatically changed what we know about memory and thinking processes.

The volume of that research has now reached a point that it can be consolidated and applied to practical fields—like plain language writing. Luckily for me, articles are now being written that can be understood by those of us who are not scientists. As these articles begin to popularize these new concepts and their practical applications, we need to reinterpret “plain language”.

I’d like to start that discussion here and now. We can’t wait for papers to be delivered at biennial conferences.

I am not a scientist, so I could only summarize what I have read. I would prefer to exchange ideas and interpretations with my peers before stating anything with a sense of certainty. And I welcome you to invite any cognitive psychologist to join our discussion.

First, here are a few definitions:

“..Psychological research on meta-cognition: thoughts about other thoughts. Whether or not something is easy to think about—cognitive fluency—is one important type of meta-cognition, with all sorts of benefits accruing to things that are easily processed…”

“Processing fluency is the ease with which information is processed in the mind. The ease with which perceptual stimuli are processed is perceptual fluency; the ease with which information can be retrieved from memory is retrieval fluency.”

The current notion seems to be that writing that uses familiar words and concepts and presented in familiar formats will be quickly and easily processed by using a default method of thinking.

Julia Baker describes the 2 mental processes:

Psychology – and cognitive theory in particular – recognize two unique systems for information processing. The first system is the “associative system,” which operates by comparing a novel stimulus with known information about the world. This system of analysis is based primarily on probabilities and assessing new stimuli by referencing previously perceived objects. This system is often characterized by quick, automatic reasoning decisions based on inferences.

The second system is referred to as a “rule-based,” product, or analytic system. It allows for a conscious consideration of the stimulus in decision-making situations. By actively considering multiple options, explanations and deviations, this system attempts to describe the world through logical analysis. Decisions made via this system can produce thorough reasoning, rather than mere predictions as offered by the associative system, which relies on known experiences.

Fluency plays a role in determining which mental operation is used for information processing. In familiar situations, individuals are likely to employ System 1 processing. Because an analogy can be formed from past experience, the more detailed analysis of System 2 is not needed. Importantly, the root of the analysis (and system choice) is the formulation of a confidence judgment, based on fluency, about how known or familiar a new stimulus seems. Where the stimulus is novel or “disfluent,” the problem solver will likely opt to use a System 2 analysis and thoroughly.

Julie Baker also describes the tactic of moderating fluency:

Fluent writing inspires feelings of ease, confidence, and trust in readers (while legalese is “disfluent,” engendering feelings of dislike and mistrust).

(I’ll give you Baker’s citation Monday)

So sometimes, when our purpose is to invoke analytical thinking or to be persuasive, we may choose more difficult, less fluent language that will engage the logical system of thought processing. This suggests we can “moderate the fluency” of writing to produce the most effective writing by engaging the anyalytical processing level when we want readers to learn or make important decisions.

I will be giving you links to current articles that might serve as a basis for our conversation. These items starting with the most popular in style. Wikipedia does have some articles on this. Each day, I will introduce you to a new article. And please tell us about the ones that you find.

The must-read article today:

Easy = True


October 13, 2010

The fog in my head vs the Fog Index

I just received an email solicitation from a business that I have allowed to send me these. I read it and thought my mind had wondered in 3 short lines because I was in a fog.
Here is the only full sentence:

Do you need a 1-Day priority support, an early access to betas and forthcoming features, goodies and a VIP status with guaranteed commitment to your organization on any dashboarding project?

The words are not that strange, so what is the problem. The only word that might be considered jargon these days is dashboarding. Beta might be inappropriate for a message to the general public, but I won’t complain about it here. So I ran the sentence through the test at Check Test Readability, just as a first-stage filter.

So what is the problem or problems?

The sentence has 31 words (a few too many even for skilled readers) with an average of 1.77 syllables per word (pretty good by that measure alone). The sentence scores 25.30 out of 100 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale. The text score indicates the is not clear and easy reading–confirming my personal experience.

These are the other results:

Readability Formula U.S Grade Level

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 17.40

Gunning-Fog Score 20.10

Coleman-Liau Index 13.80

SMOG Index 14.10

Automated Readability Index 17.80

Average Grade Level 16.64

Break up the sentence

I quickly broke the sentence apart and made a list. Like this:

Do you need help and a VIP status on any dashboarding project?

You get our guaranteed commitment to your organization with:

  • 1-Day priority support,
  • early access to betas and forthcoming features, and
  • other goodies.

Readability Formula U.S. Grade Level

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level 11.50

Gunning-Fog Score 13.90

Coleman-Liau Index 13.50

SMOG Index 10.10

Automated Readability Index 10.70

Average Grade Level 11.94

The tool reported that this text

  1. gets a 44 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease scale (better, maybe not good enough)
  2. contains 2 sentences, with 35 words (17.50 per sentence)
  3. no change in syllables per word.

Tackling vocabulary

So I changed it a little more. Google, on an out-of-date link, defines dashboarding: Presentation of data through graphical interfaces modeled ad hoc. Not a quick and easy substitution, so let’s try social media and real-time Web.

My third attempt was:

Do you need help on any social media or real-time Web project?

You get VIP service and our guaranteed commitment to your organization with:

- one-day priority support
- early access to new features or versions
- other goodies.

These changes offer a little improvement. The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score is now 51.70 and the average words per sentence is 19.

Readability Formula U.S. Grade Level
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level  10.80
Gunning-Fog Score  12.90
Coleman-Liau Index  11.60
SMOG Index   9.20
Automated Readability Index (Wikipedia) 10.00
Average Grade Level 10.90

We could go further and even try this version out on a few readers, but for now I am satisfied with about a 50% reduction in confusion.

September 1, 2010

Words change to fit the era and occasion

Language-Change Index

Oxford University Press reports that the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage has a most interesting new feature: the Language-Change Index categorizes the level of acceptance of changes in adoption of new usages for words or phrases.

Five stages of language change

Stage 1 – rejected except by a minority of the language experts

Stage 2 – rejected by those who insist on “standard usage” but spreading fast

Stage 3 – used widely, even among the well-educated, but still avoided by the language mavens

Stage 4 – ubiquitous, meaning virtually universal, but still argued against by grammar police

Stage 5 – fully accepted by rational people

Evolving English

For another perspective on changing usage, we can turn to Robert Levy’s blog Save the Semicolon:

The Six Stages of Word Grief
You will have to read his post for the explanations.

The Six Stages of Word Grief

1. Confusion

2. Amusement

3. Annoyance

4. Exasperation

5. Acceptance when OTHER people do it

6. Complete Acceptance or death

And, in “Very Unique” is Here to Stay,

Robert says:

I think that there are at least two phases after a word becomes well-known, but before it becomes really standard.

The first is when people who care about these things (and even people who don’t, but who consider themselves educated) would never use it that way, and in fact, they sort of judge people who do use it. They roll eyes, or cringe a bit, or get annoyed when they hear role-models (like politicians) use it. They consider the usage a pet-peeve, or laughable.

The second is when the people who care about these things would still not use the word, but they accept that even educated, intelligent, well-read people do use it the new way. They start to feel curmudgeonly, or pedantic, if they insist that others avoid the new usage. They recognize that they’re on the way out.

So, for my call to action: Pick the stage with which you are comfortable, write there, and stop your belly-aching.

July 22, 2010

Headlines that help

I recently complained on Twitter about this headline originating from a company that consults on plain language projects:

“Driving a positive customer experience across touch points”

Matthew Stibbes is now holding a contest for best and worst headlines.

He also provides us with a brief list of qualities of good headlines:

BBC News’ headlines are the best in the world according to web-usability guru Jakob Nielsen. Nielsen’s guidelines state that web headlines must be:

2.Rich in information scent, clearly summarising the target article
3.Front-loaded with the most important keywords
4.Understandable out of context (because headlines often appear without articles, as in search engine results);
5.Predictable, so users know whether they’ll like the full article before they click

Personally, I find headlines and subheads very challenging to write but I appreciate them as a reader.

March 19, 2010

Pennsylvania Lawyers Sponsor Student Writing Contest

Pennsylvania Bar Association Plain English Writing Competition
Setting an example for other law schools and state bars, Pennsylvania launches a contest in plain language:
The Pennsylvania Bar Association’s Plain English Committee is inviting students to take part in its Plain English Writing Competition. The Competition is open to all current law students in Pennsylvania law schools and all Pennsylvania students at other law schools in the United States.
To participate in the competition, the students must redraft the client opinion letter (click on pictures at link below) in plain English
so that it will be comprehensible to the client.
The competition rewards the winners with prize money: $1000 for first prize, $500 for second prize. Deadline: We must receive your application by noon, Thursday, April 8, 2010.

January 28, 2009

Blogs on Legal Writing, via Squidoo

Remember Molly DiBianca? Her list of the top 30 writing blogs listed several blogs on legal writing. Most are on my Squidoo Lens on Legal Writing Blawgs.

The Squidoo Lens provides the headlines to the most recent postings on each law blog, so you could subscribe to my Legal Writing Blawgs to get a quick overview of them. Use your blog feeder to subscribe.

Here is the only blog DiBianca selected, as she described it, that is not yet on my Squidoo Lens:

Disputed Issues, by Stephen R. Diamond, J.D., Ph.D., tackles common missteps in legal writing, as well as the reasons why lawyers write so badly.

January 17, 2009

More on Writing Blogs

Molly DiBianca listed her top 30 writing blogs and I have been commenting on her picks. The writing blogs I keep reading:

Confident Writing is from Joanna Young, a writing coach, who organizes theme months and participates widely in blogger-world events. This is a very busy blog.

is Brian Clark who covers online writing and effective blogging.

Manage Your Writing, is from Dr. Ken Davis, and it is one of my favorites for its short and crisp tips.

Writing, Clear and Simple from Roy Jacobsen is very readable even though he also addresses legal writing issues.

Writing Tools by Poynter Online from The Poynter Institute is an authoritative resource.

Bad Language from U.K. blogger Matthew Stibbe discusses business, technology, and marketing using effective writing.

January 15, 2009

One of the 30 Best Writing Blogs

Molly DiBianca has collected her list of 30 best blogs on writing. She has kindly included this blog:

Building Rapport, The Plain Language Blog, is written by Canadian Cheryl Stephens. The blog’s mantra sums up Stephens’ philosophy quite well. The purpose of the blog is to “advocat[e] plain language, clear design, sensitivity to audience concerns, and civility.”

Tomorrow, I will share my thoughts with you on the other blogs she chose.

July 14, 2008

Finding the right voice

On occasion, I hire a ghostwriter to produce a first draft that I can “personalize”.

Last week, Ace Ghostwriter raised with me the issue of “voice”. A new client (that I referred) was concerned whether Ace could write in “newclient voice”. Ace told me she had not realized she had been “channelling” my voice, but now was certain she could channel another.

This got me thinking. “Voice” is a well-explored concept in professional writing, but in plain language work we focus so much on being “reader-centered” that we don’t talk much about voice.

It occurs to me that I have been hiring Ace whenever I feel that I have not got the internal resource to achieve the voice that is required for a particular reading audience.

I am still pondering this, and into my email box pops a great article on voice from Ragan Communication.

Check out How to find the right voice in your writing by Jim Ylisela.

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