Category “Education”

Plain Language and Clear Communication

Friday, 18 October, 2013

Last week I had the fortune to attend the Plain Language Conference (PLAIN2013) that was held here in Vancouver. I have to admit that I had never heard of the plain language movement, but after this great event, I certainly do now.

I met a lot of very interesting people from different backgrounds, including one of the plenary speakers, the highly entertaining and informative Dr Neil James who is the Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation based in Australia. In essence, the conference was an opportunity to meet and hear from plain language advocates. So just what is plain language?

Plain language is also often referred to as clear communication, and as these names imply, focus is on trying to craft easy-to-read and consume documents. The following is a slide from Dr. James’ presentation and it explains it in more depth:

Definition of Clear Communication



What was enlightening (and reassuring) about all the talks I attended is that I realised that this is what I am trying to teach my students and also trying to apply to the work I do for my clients. I just didn’t know it had a support group.

Although there was a volume of information, all the talks I went to taught me something new, and I came back inspired and more confident in what I do. I especially enjoyed a talk by Rachel McAlpine, an author, teacher, trainer, and generally all round fabulous person. She spoke about her experiences as a writer, trying to bridge the gap of what she calls “joy writing” with “work writing” and how one can feed the other. It was a good reminder of needing to slow down, feed one’s passions, and not let the ‘everyday’ get one down. Good life lessons.

Some of the ideas and information I absorbed included information on  rethinking how people read (getting rid of this polarization of good and bad readers and adding an intermediate level), needing to accommodate mobile users, and being aware of the stories of those around us.

I came back brimming with ideas and inspiration, a ton of excellent resources, a great sense of reassurance that I know what I’m doing, and  some new friends to top it off.

For more inspiration about plain language, you should check out this TED talk by Sandra Fisher-Martins, titled “The Right to Understand” and you can also access speaker videos, presentations etc, from the PLAIN2013 website.





Content: There’s an App for That?

Thursday, 6 October, 2011

I recently came across Inbound Writer through a friend. I’ve shared my brief thoughts on it with the students in my Writing for the Web class blog, but it’s worth repeating here…

Inbound Writer bills itself as the “first social writing application”. It combines a keyword search tool, SEO prompts, a text editor and social media platforms. As a writer, I’m not sure how I feel about it. It comes across as a DIY writing with SEO tool, which is most definitely useful, but what concerns me is the impact of something like this on the quality of the writing. The number one rule of SEO, as far as I am concerned, is that you still need to write for people, not search engines, and although I’m sure this tool is useful in many ways, I don’t think it can or should replace a writer.

Maybe I just feel that way because I don’t like the idea of an app taking my job?


Integrating Graphics: How to Visually Enhance your Documents

Wednesday, 8 June, 2011

It’s common knowledge that people respond or remember information far better when they view it in image rather than word form. We tend to glaze over when we have to look at a lot of text, so it makes sense to use reader access techniques to help the audience focus on your main ideas: using any eye-catching, visually relevant representation of information can help you quickly get your point across. However, this doesn’t mean you just shove a picture or a graph somewhere for fun; you need to think carefully about what type of image will work to enhance the information, as well as how to integrate it correctly into the text.

What kind of graphic should you choose?

There are so many different ways to illustrate information, but making careful choices around what kind of graphic you use ensures the audience will understand and retain your message.

Here are some tips and ideas to help you decide:

1. Complex data is best represented in a table, particularly when you are representing numbers or trying to make a clear comparison.

2. Photos and web page screen shots are best for literal representation of information and ideas. Photos can be used really effectively to shock, motivate, or challenge the audience.

3. Graphs and charts  come in multiple shapes and forms: bar graphs, line graphs, Gantt Charts, pie charts… Look at what type of information you want to represent and choose your image based on that information. Gantt Charts show project progress on a timeline, pie charts very easily show how chunks of a whole relate to each other, line graphs are great for illustrating progress and movement etc. Don’t forget a key for more complex graphics and keep text on a horizontal plane wherever possible.

How do you work images into your text?

It’s really important to refer to an image to enhance the text in your document and to allow the audience to understand the information quickly and easily. It is also vital to label and title the image correctly.

Here are nine guidelines to help you integrate graphics effectively:

1. Number tables and figures* separately.

2. Use clear, specific, descriptive titles for each – the audience shouldn’t have to refer to the text to understand the image.

3. Integrate graphics into the document by referring to them before they appear.

4. Place graphics at the end of the first paragraph they are referred to in.

5. For larger graphics (i.e. full page images), place the graphic on a separate page after the page it is mentioned on. Raw data or large schematics should rather appear as an appendix to the document.

6. Refer to the graphic  in one of two ways in your text:

e.g. 1. Foreign sales account for 85 percent of the firm’s revenue (Figure 3).

e.g. 2. As Figure 3 shows, foreign sales account for 85 percent of the firm’s revenue.

7. Place the caption or title of a table above the table, and the caption or title for a figure underneath the figure.

8. Precede each graphic’s title with“Figure” or “Fig.” or “Table”  followed by its number and then a period.

9. Always include a source below the graphic if you use data or reproduce a graphic from another source.

Selecting the right type of graphic for your purposes is not difficult, but it is something often overlooked or done sloppily. Help your audience focus on only the most relevant information through using effective, well chosen graphics. By integrating those graphics into your text, you can ensure that your message is clear, concise, and audience-focused, making sure it is understood and remembered.




*Every graphic that is NOT a table is referred to as a figure.

Five Rules for Correct Comma Use

Monday, 4 April, 2011

I often tell my international/ESL students that the difficulty about learning English is that so many of the rules don’t make sense logically, or there are a zillion exceptions to those rules. Also, most first language speakers don’t even know the rules, or how to use them correctly. However, if you make spelling or grammatical mistakes, you are instantly judged as someone who is incompetent/careless etc. and it undermines your credibility. This is especially relevant on the job hunt or when dealing with clients.

It also intrigues me how technology (including, and perhaps particularly, Smart Phones) has effected the English language and the level of carelessness involved with business communication. People type emails on their iPhones, riddled with mistakes, typos, spelling errors etc. I guess some people can be forgiven thinking that such things are acceptable, now that *shudder* LOL, OMG and FYI have been accepted by, and in, the Oxford English Dictionary.

As I seem to be on a grammar rant/kick at the moment (see my previous post on apostrophe use), I thought I’d add a post on correct comma usage. The danger, as with any punctuation, is that if you change a placement of a comma, or forget one somewhere, you can alter the meaning of your sentence.

The Five Rules for Comma Use

Rule 1. Use commas to separate three or more items in a series.

The easiest, most basic use of the comma is to separate a list of items, whether they are words, phrases, or clauses. For example, the previous sentence shows the separation between three words in a list. Although I remember being  told you can’t use a comma before ‘and’, you actually can (depending on the situation – see rule 2). It helps the reader understand your meaning, creates crisper sentences, and stops any confusion (see how easy to read the previous sentence is?).

Rule 2.Put a comma between independent clauses when they are joined by for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

If you have two complete sentences** (also called independent clauses) and you want to join them together to show a connection using what are rather fancily called co-ordinating conjunctions, then you must use a comma between them. An easy way to remember what these conjunctions are is the acronym/mnemonic device ‘FANBOYS’ – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.
For example: I like my job, but I prefer going on holiday.  OR   I missed the bus, so I have to run to class.
This is not to be confused with a sentence that has only one subject, but multiple verbs. In this case, if you see FANBOYS, you don’t need a comma.
For example: We loved the book but hated the movie.       There is one subject “we” and two verbs “loved” and “hated”. This is just one clause, so you don’t need a comma.

Rule 3.Put a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or clause that comes BEFORE an independent clause.

If you are introducing an idea or adding introductory information to a sentence,  you must put a comma after that introductory word, phrase, or clause. However, this is only necessary if the word/phrase/clause comes before an independent clause. As you can see, all the sentences in this paragraph follow this rule.
If the information comes after the independent clause, you don’t need to use a comma.
For example: You don’t need to use a comma if the information comes after the independent clause.

Rule 4.Use commas to separate any information (word, clause, phrase) that is NOT ESSENTIAL to the meaning/main idea of the sentence.

Compare these two sentences:
All applicants who used grammar correctly were hired immediately.
All  applicants, who used grammar correctly, were hired immediately.
Do you know the difference in meaning between the two? If I separate a word, phrase, or clause from the rest of the sentence using commas, it tells the reader that information is not  important to the sentence. Therefore, if you mentally delete the information separated by commas you get the correct meaning of the sentence.
So, sentence 1 means that only the applicants who used correct grammar were hired. The second sentence means that everyone who applied for the job was hired, whether or not they used correct grammar.

Rule 5.Use commas to separate coordinate adjectives, NOT cumulative adjectives.

Say WHAT? Yes, I doubt your average first language English speaker would even know that there are even different types of adjectives, but its true.
Coordinate adjectives are descriptive words whose order in the sentence can be changed around, or you could put ‘and’ between them, and this would not change the meaning of the sentence. You must put commas between these types of adjectives if you aren’t going to use ‘and’.
For example: The company was full of polite, intelligent employees. The company was full of intelligent, polite employees. The company was full of intelligent and polite employees.
The meaning of the sentence doesn’t change.
Cumulative adjectives are different. These rely on each other in a particular order to make sense, because each adjective builds on the next one i.e. they ‘accumulate’ meaning.
For example: The princess wore a pale blue chiffon dress.
You can’t say the princess work a chiffon and blue pale dress. The particular colour of blue is pale, the material the dress is made of (chiffon)  is pale blue, and the dress as a whole is made of pale blue chiffon.
Make sense? Good.
These are not hard rules to learn, nor are they hard to apply. All it takes is a bit of time, care, and proofreading.
**A complete sentence/independent clause (same thing) has a subject, a verb, and it expresses a complete idea that makes sense i.e. someone/something doing/being something.

The Correct Use of Apostrophes

Tuesday, 22 March, 2011

Over the years, as I’ve taught more and more grammar, I have become aware of how many incorrect uses of the very basics there are out there. What shocks me is that a lot of these errors are not only basic, but they occur in advertising, on product labels, in prominent places, and are propagated by people and companies that can afford to pay for professional copywriting.

The other day, I saw a Victoria’s Secret ad on TV that proclaimed (in text) that “There’s five ways…” (can’t remember the rest of the text). Now, there are three main rules to remember with apostrophe use:

1. Apostrophes are used to indicate possession/ownership of something. e.g. The boss’s signature (you can choose to leave out the second ‘s’ and just have The boss’ signature) or Victoria’s Secret (indicating it is the secret of Victoria).

2. They are also used to show contraction i.e. when you condense two words into one, for eases sake, the apostrophe replaces what is missing e.g can’t = can not; it’s = it is (compare to its – e.g. its appearance. This shows possession.)

3. They can never be used to indicate plurals. e.g. 100’s of people is incorrect. 100s of people is correct. Some people say you can use ‘s when you have a single letter word, e.g.” There are two m’s in accommodate”, but I prefer not to do this, and eliminate the apostrophe.

So back to the Victoria’s Secret ad… There’s five ways… = There is five ways…. which is grammatically incorrect. There ARE five ways is correct. Somehow, they seem to have confused contraction with possession, which to me is unforgivable if you are going to spend thousands of dollars on an ad campaign. I have also noticed countless times where apostrophes have been used (incorrectly) to show plurals. I can’t remember the exact wording, but I remember spotting a mistake on the label of a water bottle when I was in South Africa recently. Again, if you are going to spend money on labelling and marketing a product, get it right! And hire someone who knows what he or she is doing. Like Meerkat Communications 🙂


PS – For a humourous (but correct) take on the rules for apostrophe use, see my favourite online genius, The Oatmeal.

PPS – If you are going to comment on my spelling, for example, of humourous, remember, I am not American 🙂

Litter Milk: The Importance of Proper Spelling and Grammar

Thursday, 24 February, 2011

I love coming across unintentionally funny signs or wording, where errors of spelling or grammar create the absurd, strange, or plain funny.

A while ago, I came across this sign on the door of a local shop. I always try and make my students understand the importance of correct spelling and grammar, in order to not only project the right image, but also to ensure they are understood, and that their message achieves its purpose. Incorrect punctuation, grammar, or spelling can create opposite meanings, cause confusion, or provide someone like me with a good laugh.

I have two favourite examples that I share with students. The first  is an old story. An instructor wrote the following sentence on the board, and asked the class to punctuate as they saw fit: “woman without her man is nothing.”

The men wrote, “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The women wrote, “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

Same words, but with different punctuation, you end up with the complete opposite meaning.

The second is one that came up in one of my classes. A student submitted his/her resume and on it was listed that the student had “excellent piratical skills.” While I know being a modern pirate can be thrilling, and often lucrative, it was not the kind of job the budding engineer was looking for. This particular example I use to illustrate the importance, too, of proper proofreading and the need to not rely solely on Spellcheck.

A native speaker may not have to even think about the proper term for what they are doing when they write, and I can almost guarantee that if you stopped someone in the street and asked them what a co-ordinating conjunction was, or a cumulative adjective, they wouldn’t know, and they don’t have to, as long as they know how to use them. I always tell my ESL students that I understand their frustration, because English is one of those annoying languages that has so many rules, and then countless exceptions to those rules. It’s important, however, to learn the nuances and rules of proper grammar in order to make your message clear.

It doesn’t help me that I am trying to teach English in North America, where people don’t seem to use adverbs correctly (e.g. “I like to eat healthy”. Healthy what? Healthy is an adjective, e.g. healthy food, so the previous example is missing something to be described. Compare:  “I like to eat healthily”. This uses an adverb to describe how you like to eat.), or where there are different spellings for almost everything. I also tell my students that I feel I even have to learn a new language being here, because Canadian English is a bit of a hybrid of American and British English. Add to that the abundance of different words that South Africans like me use on a daily basis that come from our indigenous languages, and no wonder it can get confusing!

I’m still not sure I will be buying any litter milk any time soon…


Where are you, in the moment?

Wednesday, 9 February, 2011

I know it’s been too long when I forget my login info for a sec! Yikes… where is February going? I feel like the first part of the year is flying by, especially when my classes start heading into mid-terms (though we do work on a different schedule in part-time studies to other school terms)…

I also know it’s been too long when I see all the updates I have to do to all my WordPress systems! Sigh… Wouldn’t it be nice to have an update button for life? You could just hit a download button and be instantly up to date on everything… that is something I would pay for 🙂

Communication Workshops and Training

On a different note, I’m really looking this year to do a lot more workshops and in-house training, so if anyone is looking for help with updating their own or their staff’s communication skills (especially in the realm of presentations and business writing), then let me know.

Next month, I am going to be doing another Cover Letter and Resume workshop for Wired Woman, so if you are looking for help updating your current resume and getting it job-ready, or if you need tips on how to write a cover letter that gets you noticed in a positive way, then check out the Wired Woman website for more details and to register.

Time, Time, Time…

The important thing with time is to remember that you can either fill it with things that satisfy you, or things that, at the time, seem great, but in fact leave you with the feeling that you wasted your day. Sometimes it is hard to know the difference in the moment, but it’s really important to do what gives you energy, and what fulfills you, each day.

All this means I have to make a note for myself to spend more time writing and updating my blog!


R and R

Monday, 6 December, 2010

I know this can be a wickedly busy time of year, where everything gets blurry round the edges (wait, is that because of too much eggnog 🙂 ) and a little stressful, but don’t forget to take some time out to be thankful for friends and family, goodies and treats, and also to rest!

I plan on resting and recharging as much as I can, to ensure I am rearing to go for 2011. 2011!! It’s terrifying to write. As an entrepreneur and teacher, I spend most of the year giving a lot of my energy to students, clients, employers, family, friends etc. and so often I have to force myself to remember  to take some time for me, to give myself permission to take some time off (and that includes brain-time too; i.e. NOT thinking about next term, the next project, my to do lists).

Although I usually take time around my birthday to check in with myself and my list of goals and wants and needs, I also do like to think about what I want the next year to be like as the old year draws to a close. I am excited for new opportunities, new friendships, new projects, and of course, a new term of students. I also like to reflect on everything that has happened in the old year (good and bad) and see where I need to improve, what I am proud of, and what I would like to make sure I achieve in the following year.

Most importantly, however, is to just be in the moment and enjoy myself! Don’t forget to do this for yourselves.

Happy holidays to you all,


Three Cups of Tea

Sunday, 17 October, 2010

I am so often amazed at our propensity as a species for horrific acts of barbarism, and yet we are also capable of performing astonishing miracles, to show bigger-than-life determination. A few hours ago, I finished reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. To be so open to the universe, to be so single-minded to help others… I could not help but be overwhelmed by the magnitude not of the task Mortenson has set for himself, but what he has achieved.

His story shows that you can conquer language barriers, cultural differences, financial issues, and move mountains. His story demonstrates that knowledge is power is bullshit, unless you take action. And it is a humbling story. I was moved to make a donation to his organisation, the Central Asia Institute (CAI), because I believe, as he does, that education is the key to overcoming violence, oppression, ignorance, poverty and hopelessness. I also truly believe that if you educate women, you see even bigger results. It is not just about being inspired by his story, but helping, too.

I want to spread the word about the amazing work he and his loyal team does. You can learn more on the Three Cups of Tea website, as well as the CAI website. If you order the book through the book’s website, a percentage of sales go towards the organisation’s mission. I want to read his next book, Stones into Schools, that continues his amazing story. It just shows how we can all make a difference, no matter how small we feel, or how little money we have.

It takes compassion, empathy, reaching out, and the willingness to believe in the best of our humanity. These are not difficult things; we just lose sight of them in the humdrum of daily life.

I can only urge you to pick up the book, share it, and think about how you can make a difference.