Executive orders can be hard to implement if the language is too dense for most

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The recent executive orders on cybersecurity and on diversity and inclusion struck many readers are overly wordy and complex — hard to understand. Fergal McGovern ran these texts through an algorithm-based program that analyzes written text for complexity and understandability. The CEO of Visible Thread joined, Federal Drive with Tom Temin with what it showed.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. McGovern, good to have you back.

Fergal McGovern: Hey, great to be here, Tom.

Tom Temin: And just briefly describe what your technology does and how it works.

Fergal McGovern: Our technology uses a mechanism for analyzing texts and language in documents. For instance, in this case, two task orders to assess complexity measures. So for instance, it’s possible to assess whether or not a document has a certain grade level. Grade level means the number of years of education required to easily understand the document. And so therefore, if you come up with a very high grade level, it becomes a proxy for complexity. So in this case, if we can discuss some of the measures, we see that the diversity inclusion [executive] order has got a grade level of 16.4, which would point to almost the idea that this is way too complex for the vast majority of the U.S. population to easily comprehend.

Tom Temin: Yet grade 16 then means, for the United States, through college.

Fergal McGovern: You’re kind of knocking on the door of a master’s degree at that point. You’ve got a primary degree, and you’re kind of at the high end of that, depending on the nature of your initial degree. But I suppose the important takeaway is less so much the literal meaning. Okay, maybe you do have that degree, but you’re putting a cognitive burden on the reader. And you’ll typically find this in very legalistic documents. We’ve all looked at car rental agreements and whatnot, they tend to be very legalistic in tone. And this is exactly what these two task orders are veering towards. It’s a legalistic, wordy kind of set of items, and not necessarily doing a great job of communicating to the standard person.

Tom Temin: Yes, just looking at some of the detail in the your analysis, if you look at paragraph 40, it has a grade level of 27.1, which I guess is post-doctorate to be able to understand the sentence goes on and on, and on and on, there must be 75, 80, 100 words in the sentence. And it’s in the passive voice. Lots of adverbs, which also add complexity without really adding much otherwise. And long words, long sentences, adverbs, passive voice, that all adds up to just a bad brew of English or any other language.

Fergal McGovern: Yeah, it’s exactly that. And actually, there’s very simple ways to actually avoid this kind of stuff. Using pronouns — we, you — directly addressing the audience rather than necessarily kind of a more academic tone. Shortening sentences, that particular paragraph 40, it’s got a combination of four extremely long sentences, the longest is 67 words long.

Tom Temin: That’s longer than a New York Times lede.

Fergal McGovern: Yeah. And it’s classic stuff. You find this on legal documentation a lot, where there’s kind of multi-clauses sentences, different intent, valuable content, really important information, but it’s not getting out. It’s hard to understand, and what you get typically, particularly in government agencies, and this is a classic example, is that then people in government need to simplify this type of content. But actually, what is a shame is that you can actually net the problem at the source and actually address the issue where it starts. And that lowers the cost for government and makes life much easier for the standard individual.

Tom Temin: And what about the argument that well, it has to be this complex and detailed because it’s legalistic, and it has a legal basis, and therefore that’s the only way we can make it legally precise? Because you hear this one a lot, too.

Fergal McGovern: Yeah, which is a very fair argument in certain contexts, right? Precedent is really important in the legal context, but much of the content and this document, we’re not saying the entire document can be short sentences and remove passive voice, there are legal precedent. I’ll read some. This isn’t the opening page. Let me read it actually fully: “As the nation’s largest employer,” and by the way, this is the inclusivity one. So, “as the nation’s largest employer, the federal government must be a model for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, for all employees are treated as passive voice, we treat […] active with dignity and respect. Accordingly, the federal government must” —  so “accordingly” as a very legally heavy word, and it’s not required here, it’s going to alienate the reader. And this can be easily re-articulated in a much simpler way. In fact, I had to stab it up myself. So that entire sentences grade 18. My little rewrite got it to about a grade 11 level, which basically means it’s a much simpler version of that without losing any of the meaning. There’s a time and place for precedent, but actually, you can simplify a lot of content.

Tom Temin: And grade 11 would be certainly well within the norms of the federal managerial class, and people that are making policy decisions and hiring decisions are for the most part, college educated.

Fergal McGovern: For sure. And the way to view it is that it’s almost less so could somebody have the education level, it’s how much friction do you want to introduce to the communication channel. So, if a bunch of people, which no doubt is the case in these two instances, internally in the federal agencies, are trying to interpret this, make simplified versions of this. The friction to translate it into a simplified view is increased. So effectively it’s costing the government dollars, and our time and energy.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Fergal McGovern, he’s the CEO of Visible Thread. Yes. If you go home and you’re going to read for your evening reading Dostoevsky, then you’re expecting a little friction, you’ve got to maybe re-read certain sections and dig-ins like doing the crossword puzzle in some ways. But when you are doing business communication to get something done in a large bureaucracy, then you want a pretty thin streamline arrow to be able to cut through.

Fergal McGovern: Yeah, and this is absolutely the case. Instead of like, look, if you go to the sea, and you’re lucky enough to kind of take a vacation this year, or you want to relax with a nice easy, pacey book, if that’s what your poison is — I love Michael Connelly, nice easy stuff, right? And it’s communicating well, it’s got a storyline that makes a lot of sense. It is possible in the context of kind of more, quote unquote, serious content to make it easier to digest and pacey-er. So the choice is very simple. Do you want a Hemingway The Old Man and the Sea type approach? Or do you want something more like Ulysses or something extremely Dostoevsky or something of that nature?

Tom Temin: And did you also look at the executive order on cybersecurity? That was actually the longer one, I believe one of them was, like, 8,000 words, one was 5,000 words.

Fergal McGovern: Yeah, we looked at both. And actually, that’s the beauty of technology. Technology is really good at kind of dumb work. So measuring metrics is really what technology is good. Now, there’s a lot of […] in the background assessing this, but the cybersecurity one to that point at 8,590 words, the diversity one had 5,800 words, so a little shy of 3,000 words in difference. But interestingly, both scored almost identical from a grade standpoint. So grade 16.4, in terms of the diversity executive order, 16.6, basically identical, in terms of cybersecurity. And the reason I found it very interesting to look at the diversity inclusivity one and actually focus a little bit more into that and see what surprised with the complexity there, is because look at the audience for that, look what it’s trying to do, look at the spirit of the [executive] order. It’s absolutely, in my opinion, very well placed, beyond putting politics aside, it seems to have the right intent. But yet the complexity is almost, pretty much identical to cybersecurity. You expect cybersecurity to be kind of complex, you expect long words, you expect complex items, but it was basically exhibiting the same characteristics, which leads you to conclude that it’s the same format, the same tone, and that is all addressable. There is a shift that we can make if there is a conservative set of energy and initiative put behind it.

Tom Temin: And do you think that perhaps in institutions and large organizations that tend to put out stuff like this is the result of having so many people have to weigh in and be satisfied with it, that it becomes the result of groupthink in group writing, which gains weight as it kind of rolls downhill?

Fergal McGovern: There is an element of that. But I think the more pervasive issue here is, “We’ve always done it this way, therefore, we must continue to do it this way.” It’s almost like, “Well, this is how we do things. We put it out like this. We are lawyers, we’re trying to put this thing out.” Interesting case study, we do a lot of work with the Australian government, which is obviously a faraway place. But the lessons are very interesting. The prime minister’s office, effectively the equivalent of the president of the U.S., put in place a concerted initiative to have a transparent communication mechanism with the general public. They said, right, “We are prioritizing transparent communications.” And they were worried about fundamental democratic rights and principles of democracy. That was the driving force. This was about four years ago, five years ago, at this stage. They mandate that any externally facing content should be grade eight or below. And they’re doing it not necessary to be literal on this, it’s a proxy for complexity. So I think that requires behavior change, it requires a lot of retraining, it requires helping people understand why is it worthwhile making that change. And human beings are not so good at behavior change. So we find a lot, you’re kind of combining technology with hand-holding with education. Most people who are not professional writers have no idea what passive voice is, they don’t know that it can be rearticulated in a more, an easy to understand way. Most people don’t realize the impact that a very long complex sentence has on the reader, and they don’t see it. And then when you shine a light on it, and you put metrics on it, it’s not an opinion, subjective view anymore, it’s, the metrics say this. Okay, if you choose to ignore that, fair enough. And we find that actually inculcates a lot of change. We’re working with one very, very large global insurance organization. He’s got 6,000 users and they’re spread across the entire organization, HR, audit, operations, back office. It’s not the comms and marketing team that are using this, they are of course to an extent, but the problem is that in most most organizations, everything is bottleneck to a manual review process. And therefore, by actually allowing and equipping people to self score content, that is a game changer. And that requires some technology, but it’s behavior change as well.

Tom Temin: Yes. My advice is to go through documents, look for the verb “to be” in any form, and rewrite it and get rid of the passive voice.

Fergal McGovern: There are a bunch of telltales that something is going from a legalistic standpoint or just not coming from an easily understandable standpoint.

Tom Temin: Fergal McGovern is CEO of Visible Thread. As always, thanks so much for joining me.

Fergal McGovern: Not at all Tom, it’s a pleasure.

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