Let’s Be Clear: Risk Communication for Radiation Safety Professionals (Part II)—How to Use Plain Language to Improve Risk Communication
“Your competence may be evaluated on your ability to communicate your work clearly.”
~ US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) 
In Part I of this series, we
- defined risk and risk communication,
- discussed the need to consider the perspectives of your audience, and
- explored some of the barriers to effective risk communication.
In Part II, we’ll begin to explore how plain language can make your risk communication easier to understand and more effective.
What is Plain Language?
I’ve talked about the benefits of plain language in earlier Bulletin articles. Plain language is clear and direct. It uses common, everyday words in short sentences and short paragraphs. It’s designed to help your reader focus on the message without being distracted by complicated language.
The number one rule for clear risk communication is to use language that is appropriate for your audience—their level of education and their understanding of the underlying science. Even when your target audience is well educated, they may not be familiar with the language radiation specialists commonly use to talk about radiation exposure and the potential risks associated with it.
The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) understands that plain language makes documents quicker to read and easier to understand, and they’ve made a commitment to providing Canadians with “clear information, written in plain language whenever possible.” They produce “plain-language publications that describe nuclear-related issues as well as regulatory requirements and processes . . . intended for the general public, governments, and other stakeholders.”
In the “Writing Tips” section of CNSC’s Guide for Applicants and Intervenors Writing CNSC Commission Member Documents (REGDOC-3.4.1), they provide some useful advice for making scientific, technical, and regulatory information easier to understand and use. Highlights from that document are included below.
Minimize technical terms and jargon
As a radiation safety professional, you use a lot of complex, technical language (jargon) that you and your colleagues all understand. In fact, many of the terms you use impart a precise meaning and can communicate complex concepts quickly and clearly to others in your field.
Problems arise, however, when you’re trying to communicate beyond your peers to broader, non-scientist audiences who don’t understand your jargon. The less your audience knows about your subject, the less technical your writing should be.
Among the Writing Tips provided by CNSC are suggestions to “help convert complex messages and legal and technical jargon into plain language that is understandable to a wide audience, without compromising the content’s intent or accuracy.”
While CNSC is clear about the need to “convey information in language that is as plain as possible,” they also warn against “over-simplify material, as this could alter the intended meaning or lose or compromise the message’s context.”
If you must use a technical term and you’re unsure if your readers will know what it means, explain it clearly within the text or define it in a glossary. Going a step further, the US Nuclear Safety Commission (NRC) says, “when using terms that are not well understood outside of the nuclear arena, such as release or radioactive, give examples that illustrate both what the term means and what it does not mean.”
The US NRC also warns risk communicators not to “use technical terms that dehumanize people. Distant, abstract, and unfeeling language about death, injury, and illness sends the message that you don’t care about people as individuals.”
An acronym is an abbreviation or word formed from the first letters of a series of words. Acronyms can usually be pronounced as a word. In their Writing Tips, CNSC offers as an example the acronym for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency—CEAA, which can be pronounced, “see ya.”
An initialism is also an abbreviation formed from the first letter of a series of words, but the result is not something that can be pronounced as a word. In their Writing Tips, CNSC offers the initialism for their own organization—CNSC.
They describe acronyms and initialisms as “a convenient shorthand” to reduce the repetition of long strings of words. Indeed, abbreviations are intended to serve readers by shortening long phrases. However, when those abbreviations are unfamiliar, or there are a lot of abbreviations used, they create more work for readers who have to keep looking back (or consulting a glossary) to figure out what’s being said.
I advise against using abbreviations that will not be easily understood or recognized by your audience. If you must use them, I offer the following tips to make them easier for your readers:
- If the abbreviation only appears two or three times in your content, save your readers from having to remember what the abbreviation stands for—spell it out in all instances.
- Use abbreviations to avoid cumbersome repetition, not just as a writing shortcut. For example, a two-word phrase is usually easier to read than it is to remember the meaning of a two-letter abbreviation.
- Spell out all abbreviations the first time you use them, followed by the abbreviation in parentheses.
- Avoid using abbreviations in titles and headings unless the abbreviation is well-known. If readers are skimming your content, abbreviations in headings may be difficult to understand out of context. If you must use an abbreviation in a heading, spell it out in the heading and then spell it out again (with the abbreviation in parentheses) when it first appears in the text.
- When abbreviations are used in tables and figures, they should be defined in the table note or figure caption. Even though abbreviations are spelled out in text, skimmers will be drawn to the visual content before reading the surrounding text. Besides, including the definitions will ensure your table or figure is understood, even if it appears out of context.
- There are some abbreviations that have become so common that they are now understood more readily than the terms they represent (such as, ATM, PhD, SPF, or NASA). When you use these abbreviations, defining them is not useful to your readers.
When you’re considering whether to use an abbreviation, or how many to use, ask yourself if the abbreviation will make it easier for your readers or if it’s just as a writing shortcut.
In the next segment of this series, we’ll discuss the importance of providing context, additional information to clarify meaning. In communicating risk as radiation safety professionals, you’re often communicating technical terms or information. Very often, your audience is not other technical experts, so they might need some help understanding your meaning or the significance of what you’re saying.
Learn more in Part III of this series in our June 2022 issue.
 US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Effective Risk Communication: The Nuclear Safety Commission’s Guidelines for External Risk Communication, pg.21.
 To learn more about plain language and how it can improve science communication, see the October 2021 CRPA Bulletin article “Let’s Be Clear: Plain Language Supports Clear Communication and Builds Trust.”
 Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). Departmental Actions to respond to the Red Tape Reduction Commission’s Recommendations Report.
 Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). REGDOC-3.4.1: Guide for Applicants and Intervenors Writing CNSC Commission Member Documents, pg.12.