International plain language federation Wed, 18 Nov 2020 10:21:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 International plain language federation 32 32 An ISO plain language standard Mon, 07 Sep 2020 10:38:48 +0000

Where we’re at, next steps, and the back story

Christopher Balmford, Chair, ISO TC 37 WG 11, Plain Language Project

7 September 2020

Next update Access for all online plain language conference, Wed 14 Oct 2020

Where we’re at

The International Standards Organization ― known to its friends as, ISO ― has a project to develop an international plain language standard that works in as many languages as possible.

In 2019, ISO appointed a Working Group to develop the standard. The Working Group is part of ISO’s Technical Committee 37, which covers Language and terminology. The Committee is known as TC 37, see ISO TC 37 WG 11, we’re right at the bottom of the page.

The Working Group, which I chair, has (at last count) 50 members from standards bodies in 16 countries ― namely: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, the UK, and the USA.

Representatives from other country’s standards bodies (that are ISO members) are welcome to join the Working Group you can read about that here.

The Working Group also has a representative from each of the 3 organisations that formed the International Plain Language Federation. The representatives are:

  • for PLAIN, Bede Sunter, Australia;
  • for Clarity, Justyna Zandberg-Malec, Poland; and
  • for the Center, Kat Catania, the USA.

BTW, in the ISO world, organisations that appoint representatives to a Working Group are officially appointed as Liaison Organizations ― and it is something of a big deal.

This structure of technical committees, working groups, and liaison organizations ― and the processes they each follow ― is all part of ISO’s well-established policies and procedures. Thankfully, the Working Group is ably supported by helpful experts at ISO.

At a Zoom meeting in June 2020, ISO’s plain language Working Group established a Drafting Committee to draft the standard. The Committee’s members are:

From existing members of ISO’s Technical Committee 37:

  • Andreas Baumert, Germany; and
  • Angelika Vaasa, Luxembourg.

From the plain language world:

  • Machiko Asai, Japan;
  • Rosa Margarita Galán Vélez, Mexico;
  • Torunn Reksten, Norway;
  • Vera Gergely, Hungary; and
  • Susan Kleimann and David Lipscomb, the USA. Susan and David are something of a double act, having prepared ― with Annetta Cheek ― early versions of the draft standard. More on those early drafts below.

Update Soon after the Drafting Committee began meeting, it co-opted Annetta as a member.

Between them, the Drafting Committee members speak ― and will be considering the standard from the perspective of: English, Estonian, German, Hungarian, Japanese, Norwegian, Russian, and Spanish.

Members of the broader Working Group will also review the Drafts from the perspective of Afrikaans, Finnish, French, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, and Swedish.

Also the Working Group’s 3 Liaison Organizations, Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center, will each consult with their members. This will further extend the range of languages involved ― for example, a PLAIN member from South Africa will review the standard from the perspective of Zulu.

Also these reviews by members of Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center will broaden the plain-language expertise applied to developing the standard.

For this sort of consultation with the members of a Working Group’s Liaison Organization, ISO has a formal policy and process ― in particular, a member who is to review a draft must first agree to preserve confidentiality and not to use the draft standard for any other purpose.

Next steps

The next steps are for the Drafting Committee to produce Draft 2 for the Working Group to review. And then Draft 3, . . . and so on.  

When the Working Group settles its final draft ― probably in mid-2021, that draft will go to ISO for a formal ballot as to whether it should be approved. The voters in that ballot are the 32 countries’ standards bodies that are Participating Members of TC 37.  (There are another 29 countries’ standards bodies that are Observing Members of TC 37, but those Observing Members don’t get to vote in the ISO ballot. See here for the countries whose standards bodies are Participating Members, or Observing Members, of TC 37.)

Assuming the ISO ballot approves the Working Group’s final draft, each country’s standards body then decides whether to adopt the standard for its country. When doing so, a country’s standards body can make any changes to the standard that it thinks are needed for its country, or for its language (or languages), etc.

Some key thoughts on the standard:

  • Like all standards, complying with the plain language standard will be voluntary ― no organisation and no individual has to comply with it. They choose to if they want to.
  • The standard is not a style guide and it is not a writing guide.
  • The standard is intended to work in as many languages as possible.
  • The standard builds on, and works with, the definition of plain language that the International Plain Language Federation developed.
  • To find out how you can be involved, read here.

The back story

The Federation initiated the project

The International Plain Language Federation was formed in 2009 by Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center. The Federation has no other members ― just those 3 organisations.

In 2010, the Federation published an options paper suggesting 7 projects ― one of which was to develop a plain language standard. However, for the next 8 years, the project was on hold, while the Federation focussed on other projects.

In 2018, the Federation ― under Annetta Cheek’s leadership ― established a committee to drive the standards project, I was appointed as its chair.

In 2019 the Federation approached Standards Australia (which is an ISO member) about developing a plain language standard.

Standards Australia proposed a plain language standard to ISO

After some to-ing and fro-ing ― and us filling in the relevant forms, and meeting with Standards Australia to make the proposal ― Standards Australia resolved to formally propose to ISO that ISO develop a plain language standard.

The relevant ISO meeting at which the proposal needed to be made was TC 37’s annual meeting in Ottawa, Canada, in June 2019. Standards Australia appointed me to make the proposal on its behalf. In Ottawa, I was supported ― and more ― by the Federation’s President, Annetta Cheek.

As part of any proposal for a new standard, ISO requires a model demonstration of part of the proposed standard ― that draft is known as the Experts’ Draft.

The Ottawa meeting approved the proposal going to a formal ISO ballot involving the standards bodies of about 30 countries over a 3-month period.

ISO approved the proposal ― work began

In September 2019, the ISO ballot approved the proposal to develop a plain language standard ― that’s when the Working Group was established, and the real work began.

The first task for ISO’s plain language Working Group was to complete the Experts’ Draft and to adopt it as Draft 1. The Working Group appointed 3 luminaries and stalwarts of the plain language world to author the Experts’ Draft, they are: Susan Kleimann, David Lipscomb and Annetta Cheek. As they completed the Experts’ Draft, they learned about ISO’s requirements for standards.

Then, moving quickly and making it sound easy:

  • The Working Group formally adopted the complete Experts’ Draft as its first draft.
  • The Working Group commented on that first draft in writing. Have a think about that: 50 people, 17 countries, 13 languages, everyone with a view . . . there were 238 comments. Many were minor: some were curly and complicated.
  • Susan, David, and Annetta responded to those comments in writing and produced Draft 1.1. 
  • In June 2020, the Working Group met by Zoom ― 36 people attended ― to:
  • discuss any of the comments that any Working Group member felt still needed to be discussed; and
  • to appoint the Drafting Committee.

Now the Drafting Committee is working on Draft 2. All power to it.

In late 2020, WG 11 will arrange for Clarity, PLAIN and the Center ― as TC 37 Liaison Organizations ― to invite their members to comment on the draft.

Lastly, deep thanks:

  • to the people at Standards Australia, ISO and TC 37 for being so encouragingly, and supportively, helpful; and
  • to everyone on the Working Group ― particularly those on the Drafting Committee; and
  • to Susan Kleimann, David Lipscomb and Annetta Cheek:
    • for preparing Draft 1 and Draft 1.1 of the standard; and
    • for the Herculean task of responding, in writing ― so carefully and so usefully ― to the 238 comments on Draft 1.

Stay up to date

The next scheduled update on the project is a discussion panel at Access for all the online plain language conference in October 2020.  You can hear:

  • from members of WG 11’s Drafting Committee, by video; and
  • from ISO TC 37’s Chair, Laurent Romary, and me (the WG 11 Convener, Christopher Balmford), in a live panel discussion.
Plain language standard update: Good news Wed, 09 Oct 2019 20:51:16 +0000 October 2019

Good news!

ISO’s Technical Committee 37 voted yes to approve work starting on an ISO standard for plain language.

When Annetta Cheek, Chair of the IPLF, announced the result to the 400 + people at PLAIN’s Oslo conference last week, there was loud and sustained applause.

If you want to know ─ or be reminded ─ you can read the back story and how you can be involved in the drafting process which were sent out to the members of Clarity, PLAIN and the Centre.

The next steps involve ISO establishing a working group for the project. ISO has been appointed, Christopher Balmford as the project leader and as convenor of the working group.  That group will produce a first draft of the standard by May 2020, in time for ISO TC 37’s annual meeting in Bangor, Wales in June 2020.

As we produce the draft standard, we will be consulting widely. Indeed, you can comment on a survey about the first draft here.

So, we’ve made it to the start line.

Hold fast.

How you can be involved in developing the ISO standard Wed, 09 Oct 2019 20:33:08 +0000

You can read the latest update about ISO’s project to develop a plain language standard here.

Directly involved

For you to be directly involved in the development of the standard:

  • you need to be a member of the relevant committee of your country’s standards organisation ― you can apply to the organisation to join; and
  • your country’s standards organisation needs to be a Participating Member of TC 37. You can check that here. If it isn’t, then you can contact it to encourage it to become one. We understand that TC 37 welcomes new Participating Members.

You can find contact details for your country’s standards organisation here if it’s a member.

Indirectly involved

You can be indirectly involved in the development of the standard by commenting on the drafts that Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center make available to their members. Each of those 3 organizations is able to do that as ISO has appointed it as a Liaison Organization for the plain language project.

International Plain Language Federation launches website and 2020 agenda. Tue, 17 Sep 2019 04:06:36 +0000 Oslo— September 23, 2019

Today the International Plain Language Federation launches a new website and the agenda for plain language in 2020 at the PLAIN2019 Conference. Each year there is an international conference and the PLAIN2019 Conference is in Oslo this week.

“We are pleased to share our agenda and networking opportunities with communicators around the world,” said Annetta Cheek, Chair of the International Plain Language Federation. The Federation promotes the public benefits of plain language and improves professional practice.

Plain Language is a right

Plain Language is a right, according to Cheek, who was a founder of the U.S. Center for Plain Language. The Center now provides an annual report card on the government agencies required to use plain language by the Plain Writing Act of the U.S.

With Clarity, an international association promoting plain legal language, the Center and the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) are the member organizations of the Federation. These member groups work to make plain language the standard for modern

What is plain language?

According to the Federation definition:
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.

The Federation website gives the definition in 19 languages and more are in the works.

iJoint Agenda in 2020

The IPLF is currently working with the International Standards Organization (ISO) to develop an international standard for creating clear and simple public information.

Other agenda items for IPLF include the training of plain language professionals.

The IPLF appreciates the contribution of volunteers Shelly Davies of New Zealand, Cheryl Stephens of Canada and skritswap, whose artificial intelligence tool helps plain English experts simplify language.

For more information

PR Contact Name: Annetta Cheek:

Download the IPLF Media Kit or visit

One giant step towards a plain language standard Wed, 04 Sep 2019 03:37:38 +0000 June 2019

The International Plain Language Federation’s efforts to establish an international, multi-language, plain language standard took one giant step forward in Ottawa, Canada during the week of June 23, 2019. There, a proposal for a plain language standard was considered as part of a week-long meeting of Technical Committee 37 (TC 37) of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The proposal ― instigated by the International Plain Language Federation―was put to the ISO by Standards Australia.

At the Ottawa meeting’s closing session on June 28, 2019. TC 37’s steering committee announced that it had agreed that Standards Australia’s proposal to develop an international standard for plain language could go forward for a vote of all the Committee’s members.

TC 37’s vote on the proposal is open until September 25, 2019. This gives each relevant country’s standards organisation time to properly consider, and consult about, the proposal before voting.

We expect to announce the result of the vote at PLAIN’s 2019 in Oslo, Norway on September 25–27, 2019. (you can read an update here).

Given the discussion at TC 37’s Ottawa meeting, we expect a yes vote. But one never knows. Even so, we are told that if the result is negative, we will likely be able to refine the proposal and resubmit it for another vote.

Please consider contacting the standards organisation in your country and encouraging it to vote yes. For your country’s standards organisation to be able to vote, it needs to be a Participating Member of TC 37. You can check whether it is here. If you’re country’s standards organisation:

  • is a TC 37 Participating Member, then you can click on your country’s name in the list to find the contact details for its standards organisation; or
  • is not a TC 37 Participating Member, then you can find your country’s standards organisation here (if it is a member of ISO) and encourage it to become a TC 37 Participating Member. The committee welcomes new Participating Members.

The more TC 37 Participating Members who are engaged in developing the plain language standard, the more likely ISO is to develop a standard that works in as many languages, and as many countries, as possible. Each country will be able to adapt the standard to suit its needs. Whether a person or organisation decides to follow a standard is up to them.


The relevant ISO committee is Technical Committee 37, (TC 37) which handles standards for “language and terminology”. Over the last week in June 2019, it had its annual standards development meeting in Ottawa, Canada. Each year, as part of that meeting, TC 37 holds a forum at which people can propose a new standard. The process is formal ― though the “vibe” is less so. A proposal has a much greater chance of success if it is put forward by a country’s standards organisation.

Originally, the Federation had sought to develop a standard through Standards Australia. Once completed for Australia, the Standard could then be adopted or adapted by individual countries.

However, earlier this year, we (the chair of the Federation, Annetta Cheek, and the chair of the Federation’s Standards Committee, Christopher Balmford) had a useful discussion with TC 37’s chair and other officeholders. In light of that discussion, the Federation proposed to Standards Australia that it initiate an ISO New Work Item Proposal to TC 37 for the committee to develop a standard for plain language. This change was in part made to facilitate other countries being able to adopt the standard more easily and with less effort.

Standards Australia agreed to the Federation’s proposal and appointed Christopher as its representative to make the pitch on Standards Australia’s behalf. On Sunday, June 23, 2019 at TC 37’s forum, Annetta introduced Christopher and gave background on the Federation. Christopher then proposed the plain language standard on Standards Australia’s behalf.

During the week of the meeting, there was much informal discussion about the proposed standard ― in particular, about how it related to the Committee’s other work. Also, TC 37 held an hour-long “question and answer” information session about the proposal. Although the session was one of several other important sessions on at the same time, 20 people (out of about 90 at the meeting) from about 16 countries attended. They asked good and probing questions.

On Friday, June 28, 2019 at the meeting’s closing plenary, TC 37 announced approval for the proposal for a plain language standard to go to a ballot of all TC 37 participating member countries — including those not represented at the meeting in Ottawa.

Thanks to . . .

Our deep thanks to:

  • Laurent Romary, Germany, Chair TC 37; Changqing Zhou, China, Committee Manager TC 37; Sue Ellen Wright, US, Chair TC 37 Sub Committee 3; Maryse Benhoff, Canada, Chair TC 37 Sub Committee 5; Walter Laserer, Austria, Committee Manager, TC 37 SC 5 ― for their active, encouraging support;
  • Gael Spivak, Canada, for introducing us to TC 37;
  • Gael (again) and Nicole Fernbach for their support at the meeting ― they were each attending as members of TC 37 or one of its sub-committees;
  • Neidra Motha, Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Standards Australia for her cheerful help on many fronts ― in particular, guiding the Federation’s proposal through Standards Australia, and on to the ISO, in a genuinely tight timeframe;
  • The people in the plain language world who, in the build up to the Ottawa meeting, helped encourage the standards organisation in their country to support the proposed plain language standard. During the week of the Ottawa meeting, it became increasingly clear that much of that work had been successful; and
  • Everyone who has ever organised, volunteered at, spoken at, or attended a plain language conference. Without a doubt, the momentum those conferences generated was instrumental in getting us to where we are.

Lastly, throughout the process it’s been wonderful to enjoy the support and collaboration of members of Clarity, PLAIN, and the Center.

To find out how you can be involved, read here.

Join us at the upcoming PLAIN2019 conference in Oslo! Fri, 16 Aug 2019 00:55:49 +0000

Each year one of our membership organisations holds a conference where the world leaders of plain language and clear communications can be found sharing the latest research and developments in the industry.

This year’s conference is run by PLAIN and will be held in Oslo, Norway, from 25 – 27 September 2019.

Three days, more than 100 speakers from 22 countries – PLAIN 2019 is the most important conference of the year for anybody interested in plain language and communication. 

Skilled speakers from approx. 20 countries will show concrete examples of how clear communication can save time and money, create trust and promote democracy. Participants can learn about specific methods which can be adopted, engage in discussions and help shape the field further.

Registrations are still open. Register here for the conference.

A pioneer in the plain language movement: Ginny Redish Fri, 16 Aug 2019 00:52:28 +0000

Janice (Ginny) Redish is a specialist in plain language, writing for the web, and user experience research and design. She’s a linguist by training, and she’s always been interested in clarity and communication.

She’s passionate about language and content, as well as information design and usability. She is the original author of the international definition of plain language: that people should be able to find what they need; understand what they find; and, then, use it appropriately to meet their needs.

She set up one of the first independent usability test laboratories in North America, and she’s the author of Letting Go of the Words—Writing Web Content that Works.

I had the pleasure to interview her where we talked about her work in the plain language arena.

Tell us a little bit about how you got started.

I’m a linguist by training, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. Today, I’d call myself a plain language writer, but I was not aware of plain language as a movement or as a goal until the late 1970s.

I was at the American Institutes for Research (AIR) in Washington, DC, when the government put out a request for proposal for a project worrying about why adults have so much trouble understanding government documents. In a way, I was in the right place at the right time, as I’d been hired by AIR to do other work, particularly about education.

We were in a very good position to respond, and we won the project. So I had to go out and figure out what was going on. That was my introduction.

The government called it the Document Design Project (DDC). The DDC lasted for three years during which we did a lot of good plain language work and grew a plain language community.

One of the things we said in our proposal—and I think helped us win the projectwas that we wouldn’t let the work die. We would use the government funding to set up an ongoing center. From the DDP, we created the Document Design Center (DDC), which lasted for close to 20 years.

Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, partnered with AIR in the Document Design Project. From the DDP, CMU created the Communication Design Center where Karen Schriver, a plain language expert and active member of the international plain language community, was Director of Research through the 1980s.

What happened next?

I left AIR and became an independent consultant. Through the 25 years of my consulting practice, I have had the pleasure (and sometimes frustration) of working on many very interesting projects.

The Document Design Center continued at AIR, under the leadership first of Carolyn Boccella Bagin, who still does great plain language work through her consulting company, and then of Susan Kleimann. Susan renamed the DDC to be the Information Design Center, which was appropriate as people come to documents—in print or online—for the information. Susan now also has a consulting practice, Kleimann Communication Group, where she and her team have transformed several major U.S. government forms and notices through an extensive usability process.

Then, in 2003, Annetta Cheek started the Center for Plain Language. Joe Kimble, Susan Kleimann, Joanne Locke, Melodee Mercer, John Strylowski, and I were all involved with Annetta in starting the Center for Plain Language.

I see the Center for Plain Language very much as a continuation or a rebirth, if you will, of the Document Design Center. So if you ask me what happened to the Document Design Center, I would say: the Center for Plain Languagealthough, of course, it’s not a direct continuity.

Ginny is now “semi-retired”; but, for 25 years, she was the president of Redish & Associates, Inc. During those years, she helped major companies and government agencies communicate clearly both online and in print.

What do you think is your contribution to the movement?

That’s hard (laugh). The work that the Document Design Project and the Document Design Center did from the late 1970s through the 1980s, I think, really helped to make plain language more visible. My team at AIR created model documents in plain language. We wrote a book called Guidelines for Document Designers that had a tremendous influence. We put out a newsletter called Simply Stated for about 10 years. We started with a few hundred people whom we knew about. By the time the last issue went out, we had 18,000 people on the mailing list. And that was before the internet.

What are the current challenges of plain language?

We still have the challenge of convincing decision-makers that even though plain language may be hard to do, it’s financially worthwhile. That’s one challenge.

Another challenge is that legal documents, medical documents, technical documents have to be accurate as well as clear.  Of course, one of the big points that I’ve been pushing for 30 or 40 years is that accuracy and clarity are not in conflict. In fact, plain language helps you make sure that you ARE accurate. But, again, not everyone is convinced of that truth.

We also have to deal with “Oh, you’re dumbing it down.” For this challenge, my mantra is “No. You’re respecting your busy reader’s time.”

Of course, I also know that it’s really important to improve education and literacy. It’s really sad that we have such a high percentage of peoplenot only in the United States, but I think around the worldwho do not read very well. But that’s not the point. They have to deal with the document you’re writing at this moment, with whatever knowledge, motivation, ability they have right now. We have to write something that works for them.

Introducing Annetta Cheek Fri, 16 Aug 2019 00:48:12 +0000

People have a right to plain language —Annetta Cheek.

Annetta is an anthropologist by training and she has a PhD from the University of Arizona. She worked for the US Government from 1980 until early 2007. Most of her Federal career focused on writing and implementing regulations. She spent 4 years as the chief plain language expert on Vice President Al Gore’s National Partnership for Reinventing Government.

She left academia in the early 1980s to work for the Federal Aviation Commission and she was among the first government employees to champion the use of clear, concise language.

Annetta was the chair of the federal interagency plain language advocacy group PLAIN from 1995 to 2007 and she also administered the group’s website:

However, in 2003, some PLAIN members realized they needed to include people outside the government to spread the plain language message. Annetta took the lead and co-founded the Center for Plain language with a group of plain language colleagues. She was Board Chair until she retired in 2014.

Her contribution to the plain language movement

  • She’s responsible for the 2010 Plain Writing Act and she developed a “report card” to measure federal agency compliance with the Plain Writing Act. Since the report card gets a lot of media attention, agencies are motivated to get good grades.
  • She established the ClearMark Awards to recognize good writing.
Introducing Karen Schriver Fri, 16 Aug 2019 00:44:15 +0000 It’s all about the reader —Karen Schriver.

Karen Schriver is a plain language consultant and researcher. She launched her career at Carnegie Mellon University, where she co-directed the M.A. in Professional Writing and coordinated the Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Document Design. She also served as research director of the Communications Design Center, a nonprofit that won the Diana Award for its landmark research on computer documentation and plain language public documents.

After 10 years as a faculty member, Karen founded KSA Communication Design & Research to help organizations around the world recognize the social and economic importance of clear communication. She also served for many years as a member of the board for the Center for Plain Language.

Karen is a true leader in the field. She’s won 14 national and international awards and she wrote Plain Language in the US gains momentum, a paper that looks at 75 years of plain language!

Her contribution to the plain language movement

  • Her book Dynamics in Document Design: Creating Text for Readers is one of the first research-based portraits of what readers need from documents and of how document designers can take those needs into account. It is now in its 9th printing and it has been called a landmark in its field. 
Our history Fri, 16 Aug 2019 00:38:42 +0000

Our origins

The Federation emerged in 2007 when three major organisations decided to work jointly on developing plain language as a profession.

These three – the Center for Plain Language, Clarity, and the Plain Language Association International (PLAIN) – each nominated two representatives and between them selected another six experts representing a range of countries and languages.


We met for the first time at the 2008 Clarity conference in Mexico City, where we mapped out a Federation agenda (subsequently published in Clarity in 2010) . 

Since then, we have met most years at the international plain language conference, including in Lisbon, Stockholm, Washington, Vancouver, Antwerp, Dublin, Graz, and Montreal.

Currently we are focused on establishing an international plain language standard.