Why with-teeth GDPR is a friend to Plain English

There are four letters guaranteed to kill almost all conversations and make normally cheerful and law-abiding people look furtive and trapped: GDPR.

If you are one of the citizens who resent having to wade through dull training videos about dangers you never even dreamt of, then relax. Read on. We want to tell you why GDPR is on your side. And why we in Plain English at NALA are finding that it’s proving to be a firm ally.

If you take the perfectly reasonable view that the Government and companies we all must relate to should communicate with us in language we can understand, then GDPR is right there with you.

That’s right. That damn GDPR, which has led to your inbox being flooded with emails from worried companies asking you to confirm you want to hear from them, is a friend to plain English. Better still, it’s a friend with very sharp teeth.

The regulations, which come into effect on 25 May, are founded on the principle of transparency. This means companies and organisations can no longer hide exactly what they do and plan to do with anybody’s personal information. The regulations state seven times that they must state in clear and plain language how they will handle data, who will do the handling and why they need your data in the first place.

No small print, no shoving dodgy true intent behind big baffling words.

All organisations operating in the EU have to comply. If they don’t, they can be fined between 2% and 4% of their revenue. Ouch! No wonder there is a sudden flood of renewed interest in learning how to state plainly what so many organisations have kept hidden for decades under bushels of complex ‘legalese’.

Here at the Plain English section of NALA we have spent years weeding officialese, legalese and plain bad writing out of the documents that the public needs to understand in order to function. We feel very strongly about this. We think it’s only fair that everybody must be able to access the services they need without employing a translator or a lawyer to help them.

There are a variety of computer programmes which check the readability of text. A recent experiment by Visible Thread, an Irish-based company that develops editing software, came up with some interesting findings. Visible Thread looked at the privacy statements of four global companies operating in Europe. In other words, they assessed the material about data that the GDPR says must be written in clear and simple language.

The four companies where AIG Insurance, BNP Paribas Bank, Amazon UK and Siemens.

The analysis came up with some interesting findings. Among them:

  • You would need the equivalent of a third level degree to have a hope of understanding the Siemens statement.
  • All of the four company statements had overly-long, complex sentences. In plain English, we recommend sentences should be at most 20 words long. The average sentence in the examples was 33 words and some were much longer.
  • In plain language, it helps to use an active voice at least 80% of the time. Using a passive voice makes it more difficult for the reader to understand. Overall, the examples used the pesky passive voice 48% of the time.

It’s hard not to conclude that these companies want you to fall asleep before you discover what they really want to do with your data.

Clearly, all of the companies need to rewrite their privacy statements or they will soon fall foul of GDPR. Large fines and embarrassing publicity awaits many companies who haven’t learnt to express themselves clearly and simply.

No wonder we’ve decided in NALA that we like GDPR after all.

By the way, three useful software programmes that can help you assess the readability of a text are:

  • Visible Thread readability (available in a free version like the one used for the analysis above and a more advanced pay-for package).
  • the Flesch-Kincaid readability test, which shows how difficult a passage is to understand based on the length of words and sentence length; and
  • the Flesch-Kincaid grade level, which assesses how many years of education you need to understand a text.

Both Flesch-Kincaid software packages come with Microsoft Word.

NALA’s Plain English section provides editing services for many government departments, organisations and companies to make their written material as clear as possible. We also provide training in how to write and present text so it can be easily understood. For more details please visit www.simplyput.ie or email communications@nala.ie