TEDxO'Porto - Sandra Fisher-Martins - The right to understand

Uploaded by TEDxTalks on 11.07.2011

Good evening.
The story I'd like to tell you started in 1996.
One day, I was looking through my bank statement,
even though there wasn't much to look at,
and in the top corner, I noticed a symbol
which said this document had been written in plain language
so I could understand it.
I thought this idea interesting, so I did a bit of research
and found out there was a campaign for language simplification:
the Plain English Campaign.
I thought it a fabulous idea, and then forgot about it.
When I returned to Portugal, I was confronted with several documents
-- my work contract, the mortgage agreement, the power bill --
documents which reminded me of that bank statement,
not because they were clear and simple,
but because they were the exact opposite.
Only after a second or third reading could I begin to understand them.
So the little seed planted in '96 started to grow,
and one day, I found myself walking into my boss' office and quitting my job
so I could dedicate myself to this.
Right from the start, I realized the problem was much more serious than I thought.
Not only were these documents complex and annoying,
but literacy, which is the ability to understand written documents, was very low in Portugal.
Here's a graph of literacy in Portugal.
There's still about 10% of Portuguese who can't read or write at all.
This graphic shows us the ones who can -- or claim they can -- read and write.
So, there we have the red group, which represents those at the lowest literacy level.
They can join up letters to make words, but can't actually understand what they read.
For example, if they need to read a medicine leaflet to figure out
the correct dose to give their child, they can't. They can't understand the information.
That's 50% of Portuguese.
Then we have another 30%, the group in yellow. These people can get by,
as long as they don't have to read anything new or different.
So, for example, if they work in a factory and a new machine arrives
and they have to read the manual to operate it, they can't.
And that's already 80% of Portuguese.
Then there are a few who can handle documents as long as they're not too complex,
and there's 5% of the population who can understand truly complex documents.
And just so you don't think this is the norm, that other graphic shows literacy in Sweden.
While we have 20% of people with a literacy level considered essential for daily living,
Sweden has 75%.
And looking at this graphic, I realized we live in an information apartheid.
I realized there's a small minority who can access information and use it for their benefit,
and a huge majority who can't. And because they can't, they're excluded and at a disadvantage.
I'll give you an example. That's Mr. Domingos. He's our building's janitor.
He started reading when he was 27. He's in the yellow group we saw earlier.
Once in awhile, he comes to me and says, "Miss Sandra, I got this letter ..."
Whenever Mr. Domingos or someone in his family gets a letter they don't understand,
he brings it to me and I help translate it.
So that time he said, "I was about to throw this in the bin. Can you just check if it's something important?"
It was. Mr. Domingos had been waiting for some time to have knee surgery,
and it was the letter that contained a surgery voucher.
When someone has been waiting a long time for surgery, they're sent this voucher
that can be used at a private clinic. And Mr. Domingos' letter almost went in the bin.
Later, I found out that in that same year, only 20% of those vouchers had been used.
I find it hard to believe the other 80% just got better while they waited.
They probably did what Mr. Domingos was about to do: "What's this? I don't get it. It's rubbish."
They missed the opportunity to have the surgery they needed.
When people don't understand, it has serious consequences, not only for themselves, but also for the whole country.
If I don't know my rights or the benefits I'm entitled to, I probably don't know my responsibilities either,
and I'm not an active and participating citizen.
And now, maybe you're sitting there thinking, "Poor Domingos, that's tough."
Me? I'm in the green group. I'm pretty sure I'm green. I was invited to TEDx.
But let me read you a few things I've got here and we'll see what color you are when I'm done.
This one is from a car insurance policy. It says:
"Unless otherwise stipulated, upon demise of the insured person, the insured capital is allocated to the beneficiary.
In case of the demise of the beneficiary anterior to the insured person, insured capital is allocated to the latter's heirs.
In case of the concurrent demise of the insured and it's beneficiary, the insured capital is allocated to the latter's heirs."
Next I've got a medical leaflet. "Beware: Erythema, edema, vesiculation,
keratites and urtication can still occur." Got that?
This one is really good. I signed the new office's tenancy agreement on Friday and it said:
"I, the guarantor, assume the tempestive payment of the lease,
waving the benefits of division and previous exclusion."
When I read "tempestive payment," I pictured myself barging into the landlord's office,
slamming the door and shouting, "Here's the money!"
But that's not what it means. It's not.
When we move away from our area of expertise, and we don't have to go very far --
it doesn't have to be string theory.
When we move away from our area of expertise, we're as much in the dark as Mr. Domingos.
These are not documents written by experts for experts,
like scientific journals. These documents are written for me.
These are public documents -- documents I need to understand to get by daily, to live my life.
The tenancy agreements, the medicine leaflets, the power bills --
all these should be clear, so we can understand them. Because, what happens if they're not?
We make mistakes.
I'll give you an example of mistakes, bad decisions due to misunderstanding documents.
You remember the "subprime crisis" in the United States?
People were signing mortgage agreements without truly understanding what they were agreeing to.
If they knew, they would have realized that as soon as the interest rates went up,
their mortgage payments would shoot through the roof and they would lose their home.
And then, the rest is history.
If the financial sector had a culture of clarity, do you think things would have gotten that far?
I don't think so.
So how do we solve this problem?
This huge gap between the average literacy level, which is down here,
and the complexity of public documents, all the way up there?
Well, the most obvious solution, given that literacy is all the way down there, is to raise it.
Let's teach people. It's obvious! Of course we must teach people. But it's hard and it's slow.
I don't even want to imagine how many generations it'll take for us to reach Sweden's level.
But it's not just because it's slow. There's another problem.
If the documents' language isn't simpler, we've already seen that even people with high literacy,
people like you, struggle to understand the complex language.
Yes, we must improve literacy, but right now it's much more important
to reduce public documents' complexity and simplify language.
I'll give you an example. This is what I mean by "simplify language."
This is an extract from an insurance contract: "It's agreed the insurer blah blah blah ... "
Compare the before and after versions. This is what I mean by "simplifying language."
It's communicating in a simple and clear way so our reader understands it the first time.
Which one do you prefer? Pretty obvious, isn't it?
So, how can we get the government and businesses to communicate with citizens
in a language they can easily understand?
There are several ways. Some countries have taken the legislation route.
Last year, the U.S. and Sweden passed laws which require the state to communicate with people
in a language they can understand.
You might think: "But that's normal. Sweden and the U.S. are more advanced than us.
It would be nice if we also had these laws, wouldn't it?"
It would. And you know what? We do. Since 1999.
The administrative modernization law says that communication between the state and
the people must be simple, clear, concise, meaningful, without acronyms, etc.
But no one complies with this law.
The legislation route only works in countries where laws are made to be applied.
But there's another way: the marketing way. And how does it work?
Private companies simplify their language, they make a big song and dance about it,
consumers love it, sales go up. Works great. But it only works for the private sector.
There's a third way which, for me, is the most important.
It's through civic movements, which are based on a change of mindset.
In the countries where this succeeded -- remember the English symbol of the Plain English Campaign? --
it's often based on consumer movements.
And how do you start a civic movement? We need to understand two very important things.
First, wanting to understand public documents is not a whim;
it's not intellectual curiosity.
It's a daily need and, most of all, it's a right.
It is everyone's right.
So, understanding it's a right. But there's something else:
those who write must write to be understood.
How do we make this work? First we need to be more demanding consumers and citizens.
Think about it. The next time someone hands you a document you can't understand,
don't just let it go and pretend you get it. No, demand to understand. Ask questions.
I know it's not easy to ask the guy in the suit, "This bit here in the contract, what does it mean?"
It's not easy at all -- maybe even a bit embarrassing. But don't worry, it's actually a sign of intelligence.
What do you teach your child to do when they have a question at school?
"Be really quiet, pretend you know and make a clever face." That's not it, is it?
You say, "When you don't know, stick your hand up and ask until you get it."
That's exactly what we need to do as consumers and citizens.
Next time you're handed a document you don't get, demand to understand.
Put pride to one side for a bit and ask until it's all clear.
And there's another side: these bad documents don't just fall from the sky. Someone wrote them.
In such a large audience, there are probably some lawyers, public servants.
Don't worry, I'm not asking you to stand up.
But I do ask you to think about how often do you write documents for the public,
for those who don't share your language, in a way that only you will understand?
And you say, "But there's a reason for it!" My friends, I've heard them all.
There are thousands of them: "It's the way we've always done it." "My boss … " "The judge … "
"What if it goes to court?" "You want to destroy language." "We have to educate people." "We cant lower the standard." Blah blah blah. I've heard them all. They're all excuses.
Someone mentioned Einstein before.
He once said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."
For Einstein.
So ... argh! I'm running out of time!
If you know what you want to say,
you just need to believe it's possible to write it in a clear way.
And how do you do it? It's very easy. You write for your grandmother.
I'll show you Grandma.
You write with respect and without patronizing her.
And you use these three techniques:
first of all, you start with what's most important. Grandma is busy.
She's not going to read three full pages just to get to the main idea.
Start with what's important.
Second, use short sentences. Because Grandma, like any of us,
if the sentences are too long, by the time she gets to the end, she won't remember the beginning.
Finally, the third: use simple words -- those that Grandma already knows. OK? It's easy.  
Before I leave, I'd like to tell you about Claro. It's a social responsibility project with the aim of
changing the way public communication is made. What do we do?
We'll start this year with a collection of Clear Guides. We're going to take very complex subjects
and boil them down to the essentials. We'll start with the Clear Guide of the Justice System,
which I think will be very useful.
Another thing we'll do is give prizes to the best and worst documents.
Because there are people out there trying to communicate clearly and they should be rewarded.
And there are some lazy ones who don't even try, and they should be humiliated.
So, we'll award the best and worst. I'm counting on you to help out.
The campaign will be launched through Claro's Facebook page,
so become friends and you'll be up to date.
But finally, most of all, what does Claro want? We want to put two ideas in your heads.
First, demand to understand. Second, write to be understood.
Write for Grandma. But if you don't have a Grandma, write for Mr. Domingos. He'll appreciate it.