Planning November 2020


Building Connections With Clear Communication

By Mary Jane Nirdlinger

There is something public officials can do to build connections with the public in these times of "fake news," mistrust of politicians and data, and political division: speak clearly.

Mary Jane Nirdlinger is the assistant town manager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and an advocate for plain language in local government. Image courtesy Mary Jane Nirdlinger.

Mary Jane Nirdlinger is the assistant town manager in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and an advocate for plain language in local government. Image courtesy Mary Jane Nirdlinger.

As planners, we don't often think of ourselves as communications experts, but how much time do we spend writing reports, emails, news items, and sharing information? Quite a bit. And how often do we hear, "Wow, I really understood that traffic report," or "That data was really clear. Can we talk about tradeoffs?" Probably a lot less often.

Our first reaction is often something like "People just don't take the time to understand what I'm producing," or "I work with very technical information." Both are probably true. We have specialized knowledge, and if we want that knowledge to be useful in the world, we need other people to understand us.

Sometimes, we might even worry that writing simply will make us seem unintelligent or unprofessional. But I believe that simple, clear writing is the most professional way to communicate. Writing documents nobody understands doesn't make us sound smart — it makes us sound evasive and untrustworthy. It also wastes time and resources. Many of our workplaces have a deeply entrenched habit of writing in cumbersome, legalistic, technical language. It's time we change that.

So, in the interest of building better communities through plain language, I offer four ways planners can start today:

1. Be Straightforward.

I know my field's terms and assumptions, but others likely don't. When I give my governing board a memo saying a neighborhood requests no parking signs "due to ongoing vehicle access issues resulting from vehicles parked on both sides of the streets," what I really mean is "parked cars are blocking people driving through the neighborhood." Nobody in the real world talks about "vehicle access issues." We need to scour our writing for jargon and bureaucratic terms. I like to pretend I'm talking to my teenager — the one who tunes me out if I go into techno-speak. Translation is key.

2. Be Honest.

We build trust through honesty. Plain language is clear; it tells us who did what and why. Clarity and honesty show what we're doing. It can feel vulnerable, but it's the right thing to do.

3. Be Logical.

We need to help the reader along. I like to think about what needs to be said and organize it before I start writing. Do we want them to do something? Put the most important information at the top. Does it only apply to certain people? Let them know at the beginning. Headings help readers skim for key information, and tables and charts can replace lengthy prose.

I once worked on a driving policy covering several types of drivers and differing training requirements. Using a simple decision-tree chart made it easy for anyone to quickly figure out which standard applied to them. This isn't dumbing things down; it's making everyone smarter.

4. Be Kind.

Treat the reader the way you'd like to be treated. How many times have you received an email that was so dense and complicated, your heart sank? When was the last time you actually read the Terms of Service before clicking "agree"? When we blanket information in jargon, tumble it across the page, and hide it in prose, we lose our readers — and worse, we might also lose their trust.

Discourse is necessary, especially today. It happens best when we're sharing ideas and information, not burying each other in miscommunication. We can best serve and support our communities by presenting important information in ways they can easily understand. Simply put: It's our job.

Viewpoint is Planning's op-ed column. The views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the magazine or the American Planning Association. Please send column ideas to Lindsay R. Nieman, Planning's associate editor, at