LIVE: Deborah Bosley – Demand to Understand: How Plain Language Makes Life Simpler

Mike Watson welcomed Deborah Bosley to the stage, explaining he’s a better person for knowing her.

Deborah opens with encouraging the ignition for us to all care about how information is presented and attention to simplicity.

She begins with a family anecdote about her family’s health insurance, explaining the only way to compare plans was to print all of them out and physically compare them, by spreading them out across her dining room table. She decided to ask a senior center in town to help her understand; they agreed to assist saying, “no problem,” then handed her a thick binder. She realized, all they need is a simple list of the opportunities available to make an informed decision, and not just gut decisions.

She decided right then and there that she would never write things that only 4 people knew how to read. She decided she would just keep it clear and simple. Deborah shares, “I’m going to demand to understand.”

We all suffer from having to make decisions with limited information, causing frustration and confusion. “People have a right to understand information that affects their life.”

What do we need to know? Not only do these companies waste so much money, they’re wasting our time. This also relates in other aspects of our lives. How can we function in a democracy where the ballot is so poorly designed? People don’t know who they are voting for.

This takes place so often, consider the FAFSA application… “don’t take me back there,” she jokes. Thousands of kids each year don’t go to college, because they cannot fill out these forms.

The problem is that adults in the US have an attention span of 8.25 seconds. (FYI: A gold fish has the attention span of 9 seconds.)


What should be happening with information: 

1) You need to give people the information they NEED, not just what you THINK they should know.

2) Design: keep it simple and plain.

“Imagine how much time would be saved if this were applied to parking signs alone…”


What can we do?

1. ) Call, talk, email, write –  let companies/government know that you are pushing back and that you demand to understand.

2. ) We also need to look at ourselves. Are you writing an artist statement? Will anyone understand it? Are you writing a contract? Can the receiver feel connected and know what you’re saying?



1) Eliminate 30% of everything you write

2) Get to the point.

3) Avoid jargon

4) Use visuals

5) Write short sentences

6. Be HUMAN and helpful


Let’s choose to live in a world of clarity; it’s a serious issue.


About the Speaker…

My entire life has been devoted to words. As an English major (of course) who became a bookbinder during my hippie days in Kentucky, I worked with a small, letterpress printer that published books by Wendell Berry, among others. I created The Bittersweet Bindery, was invited into the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsman, and (in addition to binding for the press), I sold handmade, blank books.

I then became a published poet while going to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition. During, and after, a successful career as a professor teaching technical writing at UNC Charlotte, I started my business: The Plain Language Group.

I have spent the past 20 years helping Fortune 100/500 corporations, non-profits, and government agencies create written information that is easy for people to understand and use.
I believe that only by communicating with clarity, conciseness, and credibility can our democracy thrive ad organizations understand the power of “leading with simplicity”

As an advocate for plain language, I believe that people have the right to understand information that affects their lives, and they should “demand to understand.” I’m always astonished that people shrug when I ask: “Why would you agree to or sign something you don’t understand?”

I have given more than 100 presentations to business, government, and non-profit organizations in the U.S., Mexico, England, Spain, Ireland, Germany, and France; authored three books; and written dozens of articles on issues related to clear communication.

So my mantra is this: Word.