Grad uses plain language to make city audits accessible

Photo by Kristen Clark

Kristen Clark has plenty of practice trying to make sense of head-scratching paragraphs.

A former journalist, Kristen works as a communications specialist in the Auditor’s Office of the City and County of Denver, Colorado, where she copyedits, proofreads and designs monthly audit reports. Recognizing report drafts were often full of jargon and needed clarity, she turned to SFU’s Plain Language Certificate program for direction. 

“Auditing can be very technical,” she explains. “We want our reports to be accessible to our community, so we want to avoid a technical term we don’t need to use. Or how might we say it differently in terms people can understand?”

After doing some independent research and reading on plain language, she landed on SFU’s program, which had been recommended by several plain language experts. 

Kristen says undertaking the final project in the program was invaluable, even if it intimidated her at first. For her project, she worked with the Association of Local Government Auditors, helping the organization use plain language to clearly communicate upcoming initiatives to its members in Canada and the U.S.

Through the project, Kristen was able to bring back ideas to her own role at the City and County of Denver. She continues to use plain language to help her colleagues rethink how they talk about city programs. 

As one example, Kristen noted a recent audit report informing residents about upcoming changes to trash pickup, which the city referred to using its internal terminology: “solid waste management.”  

“Those more relatable terms like ‘trash pickup’ increase the impact that our reports can have with our community because people realize, ‘This matters to me, and I see why this matters to me because they’re speaking my language,’” Kristen explains.

The Auditor’s Office’s communications team now integrates plain language concepts into their whole strategy: from the words they use, to the way they lay out a page, to the graphics they choose. 

The credibility of SFU’s program also helped back up the plain language training Kristen offers to other staff members. 

“Auditors rely on facts and evidence to form their conclusions, so they’re very technically minded,” she notes. “Even in the training they receive, they want to know that it’s coming from proven and supported sources."

“So, being able to use the skills I learned in this program and show them, ‘this is where I learned it from,’ they’ve been more welcoming of this approach to communications.” 

Her biggest takeaway from the program? There is no right way to communicate in plain language. 

“You can’t just wave a wand and have plain language,” she says. “It really is a thought process that’s specific to what you’re communicating. It’s a valuable skill to have, and you don’t realize how valuable it is until you learn it.”

By Bernice Puzon