Plain English Awards

celebrate New Zealand's clearest communicators


A drop of courage can lead to an ocean of change. Image by Pixabay / CC0

WriteMark Plain English Awards founder, Lynda Harris, gave a stirring speech to a sell-out audience at the 2017 Plain English Awards. She encouraged us all to think bigger and do more. Here’s what Lynda said.

Lynda Harris

Annual awards reward and motivate

Twelve years ago we had the bold idea of publicly honouring those organisations that were really trying to make important information clear.

And it worked.

Not only do we have plentiful anecdotal evidence about the motivating effect of the annual Plain English Awards, but we also have a ton of great comments in the surveys we’ve done.

‘The Awards help motivate us to get it right for the people that need good information the most.’

It becomes very real when we see forms that are easy to fill out; contracts and conditions made straightforward; and vital healthcare information written in a reader-friendly way.

We love comments like these: ‘We finished by lunchtime what would normally take us all day.’ Plain English makes everyone’s life easier!

Struggling to find support

But a lot of the work has been done by not many people. Even though more organisations are producing reader-friendly publications, not enough people in those organisations understand the power of clear communication and its potential to transform organisations and lives.

The people who do understand often beaver away on their own or in a small group with little support. Often they retreat a bit and accept that there is only so much they can do.

That’s a huge opportunity lost, and and a massive consequence cost.

A dose of inspiration with positive side effects

I have to admit I was in this frame of mind recently when I got a dramatic and unexpected dose of inspiration from two remarkable speakers. They shared an incredible story, which reminded me that if we believe in the worth of something, we can inspire others to join us and make something big happen. It made me think of the Marianne Williamson quote, ’Your playing small does not serve the world’.

I want to share a snippet of that inspiring story with you — with the not-so-secret agenda that I want you to realise you have the desire and the power to do more!

This is the story of 19-year-old Australian Daniel Flynn and his two friends, who came up with the audacious plan to end world poverty in their lifetime. They’d seen a documentary about children in other parts of the world dying every day from a lack of clean water. Their plan was to start a bottled water company, and use 100 percent of the profits to create clean water and sanitation projects where they were needed most.

Impossible is an opinion

Of course people said it was impossible.

Daniel said, ‘Impossibility is only someone’s opinion, not a fact.’

Most of the people Daniel pitched to, and plenty more besides, said, ‘It won’t work.’

Daniel said, ‘But what if it does?’

They started with $1,000 between them and zero experience in anything to do with business, overcoming obstacles of every sort, and asking Google ‘How to start a bottled water company?’

Eight years on, still in their twenties, they are running a very different and highly successful company with no investors, no shareholders, and no debt: a company that gives 100 percent of its profits away.

They have given $5 million to provide water and sanitation services for 441,530 people, and food aid for 124,737 people. They have humanitarian projects running in 18 countries.

And they did it through an unwavering belief in the good they could do, sharing that belief boldly and creatively. They built a community who believed with them. And they called their company ‘Thankyou’.

Borrow boldness for what you believe in

Listening to Daniel and his wife speak, I felt a new-found energy for everything I believe in. ‘If these young people can do so much, starting with nothing more than conviction, what can I do?’ And it’s stayed with me.

I thought of Margaret Mead’s words, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’

Which leads me to ask a personal question. In your workplaces, under your influence — thinking of how you currently communicate with each other and give vital information to New Zealanders — what change do you want to see?

What if you were to multiply by 20 (or 100!) the positive effects of the documents and websites entered into the 2017 Plain English Awards? What would it take to do that?

The economic and social good that flows from a focus on clear, meaningful communication is easy to find — in fact, we wrote a book about it.

I’m hoping now that by borrowing some boldness from three young people who are changing the world in mighty ways, you feel inspired to advocate even more strongly for what you believe in.

To do that you’ll need to do something differently, to challenge the status quo, and politely shut your ears to detractors — I truly hope you will!

Posted In: Awards brand, Finalists, Plain English Awards

2017 award winners

Winners of the 2017 Plain English Awards

Congratulations to all our winners and finalists!

Utilities Disputes was the big winner at the 2017 Plain English Awards held at the Royal Society Te Apārangi in Wellington last night. Jerome Chapman, Deputy Commissioner, received the Best Organisation supreme award on behalf of the not-for-profit company. The judges noted:

Utilities Disputes has deliberately embedded plain English into the core of its organisation culture. And its perseverance and commitment have obviously paid off. They are truly plain English champions, and deserve recognition for their expertise and commitment to plain English philosophy.

Utilities Disputes won services worth $5,000 from New Zealand’s plain English specialists and founding sponsor, Write Limited.

Another champion recognised

The other award in the Champion category went to Steph Prince from NZ Transport Agency for Best Individual or Team.

Praise for best documents and websites

The award for the Best Plain English Document for the private sector went to Tower Insurance Limited for their House Insurance Premium Cover. Superu took out the award for the public sector with Making Sense of Evaluation — a handbook for the social sector.

The Best Plain English Website award went to the Department of Internal Affairs for the website. This informative yet accessible website has won before.

Re-thinking a document or website to improve it

The Best Plain English Turnaround award went to Ministry of Civil Defence & Emergency Management for its website, replacing the Ministry’s website.

Legal, Technical Communicator, and Annual Report categories

Parliamentary Counsel Office took out the Best Legal Document award for its Contract and Commercial Law Act 2017.

The Best Plain English Technical Communicator was Louisa Eades from Streamliners.

Z Energy won Best Plain English Annual Report for its 2017 report titled Solving what matters for a moving world. 2017 Annual Report.

Spotlight on the humble sentence

Jan Schrader at Stats NZ won the award for Best Sentence Transformation. Stats NZ has won in this category before, most recently in 2015.

People’s Choice — the best and the worst

Members of the public also submitted entries for two categories. The People’s Choice awards recognise the best and worst in government and corporate communications. Wellington City Council won the Best Communication award for its Our Wellington magazine. Of this entry the judges said:

What’s not to like? The document’s intention is clear and headings highlight the key messages. It has a vibrant design, clear statement headings, friendly language, and good variety. It successfully combines drier council initiatives with more exciting information on events. This good piece of work is probably well liked by Wellingtonians.

The People’s Choice Worst ‘Brainstrain’ award went to Inland Revenue. The Department received this could-do-better award for its direct debit conditions. The judges said, ‘This is supposedly an explanation of the conditions under which Inland Revenue has authority to accept direct debits — we think!’ The person who nominated the document said:

‘Inland Revenue say they have improved their website and made it easier to do business. But when you choose to pay by direct debit and two days later this nonsense is emailed to you — from a do not reply email so there is no way to ask for plain English — they could do better.’

Inland Revenue responded in good spirit with a humorous video.

The benefits keep coming after 12 years

After 12 years of Awards, we’re really starting to reap the benefits of business and government using clear communication to engage with their clients, consumers, and customers.

Chris Trudeau, US plain language specialist and professor of law, has said that New Zealand is ‘far ahead of the game’ in plain language. And this year, judges felt only one entry truly qualified as a ‘Brainstrain’. That’s got to be good news! And may this trend of constant improvement continue.

The 2017 Awards received entries from new entrants and previous award entrants. So it’s evident that those entrants recognise the benefits of New Zealanders receiving messages that are clear, concise, and consistent.

As Gregory Fortuin, chair of the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust, explains, ‘Think of people caught in an emergency getting fast help from their insurer through an easy-to-complete claim form. Or patients experiencing less stress because they can easily understand their treatment. Or investors being able to understand their investment options from reading a clear investment statement. Communications written in plain English really can improve the lives of everyday Kiwis.’

Thanks to our 2017 sponsors

Major sponsors for this year’s Awards included WriteMark Limited, Write Limited, NZ Super Fund, Immigration New Zealand,, Wright Family Foundation, TechCommNZ, Graphic Solutions, and Consumer NZ.

Other sponsors, whose contributions to the Awards were also invaluable, were Kendons, Editor Software (United Kingdom), JUNO Investing Magazine, Community Comms Collective, Business NZ, Shelly Davies Writing & Training, Summer KiwiSaver Scheme, and Justly.


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From shortlists to finalists — decisions have been tough. Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

After some tough deliberations from our judges, here are the finalists in the 2017 Plain English Awards.

As with our shortlists, entries are in no particular order. We haven’t published finalists in some categories so we don’t let the cat out of the bag.

‘Ooh — awesome’

Read some of the feedback we’ve had from judges about this year’s finalists below.

  • ‘All three judges found this to be the very best group of entries we have seen in our many years judging these awards.’
  • ‘We applaud the effort everyone has made to follow the principles of plain writing.’
  • ‘You can be especially proud to win this category among these excellent entries!’
  • ‘The friendly, light tone in this rewrite is a delight.’
  • ‘When I finished the rewrite I said aloud “Ooh – awesome”.’
  • ‘Overall this is an excellent effort.’

Winners will be announced on 23 November

We’ll announce our winners at the Awards ceremony in Wellington on 23 November. We’ll also publish the list of winners on our website later that evening.

Posted In: Awards brand, Communications, Finalists, Plain English Awards

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The decisions were tough but our shortlists are out. Photo by Samuel Scrimshaw on Unsplash

We’ve had plenty of positive and productive feedback about this year’s entries, with several judges commenting on how tough their decision-making has been. One judge summed up the dilemma perfectly: ‘This competition is stiff, and we will have to do some real work to sort out the best of the best.’

Take a look at this year’s shortlists

Entries on the shortlists are in no particular order. If we haven’t published a shortlist, it means we can’t let the cat out of the bag just yet. In some categories we had fewer entries that met the judges’ high standard.

Look out for the list of finalists on 19 October.

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Calling all champions — it's time to enter the Plain English Awards (Image by Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0))

You definitely don’t want to miss out! Now’s the time to enter the 2017 Plain English Awards. Because who wouldn’t want to be in the running at these prestigious awards?

There’s no need to be shy about entering. Are you worried your content might not be plain enough? That’s a very good sign, because it shows that you care enough to be concerned. You care enough to want to do the best for your reader. You care about clear communication. It shows that you’re a perfectionist — and perfectionists like you are the closet champions we’re looking for.

If you truly care, enter your own or somebody else’s content in this year’s Plain English Awards. The Awards honour those who write plain English.

10 facts about New Zealand’s Plain English Awards

  1. Entries close in 3 weeks, on 31 August 2017.
  2. Most people don’t think they are good enough to enter — so seize the advantage!
  3. No entry has ever been perfect — perfection is not possible.
  4. The judges are impressed by effort, and delighted by every clear document.
  5. The only documents publicly criticised are those in the Brainstrain Award.
  6. You can enter a document, a website — or just a single sentence.
  7. You can enter other people’s work in the People’s Choice category.
  8. The premier prize is worth $5,000.
  9. The Awards have been running for 12 years.
  10. The awards are a not-for-profit event hosted by the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust.

Enter the Awards here

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The fabulous Awards trophies created by sculptor Campbell Maud

We talk to Lynda Harris, plain language advocate and the original inspiration behind the Plain English Awards. Lynda is Chief Executive at Write Limited, premier Awards sponsor. The Awards are organised by the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust and are now in their twelfth year.

What types of organisations enter the Awards?

All types of organisations enter — large and small, public and private sector. Basically any New Zealand organisation that cares about the way they communicate is a good candidate! Government organisations tend to get behind the Awards really well, but the corporate sector is increasingly well represented too.

What kind of documents can you enter?

Virtually any kind of business document or webpage can be entered. And, it’s not just documents — people and organisations are honoured too.

See the Awards categories here

Image: The fabulous Awards trophies created by sculptor Campbell Maud

The fabulous Awards trophies created by sculptor Campbell Maud

You’d be hard pressed to find a plain legal document, wouldn’t you?

Actually, you’d be surprised! Many law firms, including top tier firms and smaller niche firms, are proactively marketing themselves with plain English as part of their brand. The Awards include a dedicated category for legal documents, so watch this space!

What about financial documents? Can they really be clear to the average person?

Many financial organisations — banks and insurance companies especially — enter the Awards with impressively clear documents. In fact, a major bank (ANZ) and several other financial organisations have done especially well in the general categories over the years. We also have a special category for annual reports.

The Awards have a strong focus on excellent communication, but don’t you also expose really bad writing?

Twelve of the thirteen awards honour positive effort and results. The thirteenth ‘trophy’ (really a stainless steel bin filled with sour lollies) goes to the winner of the dreaded ‘Brainstrain’ award. That award goes to the worst document or website nominated by a member of the public. For the unlucky organisation receiving that award, confusion wins!

The Brainstrain award has a very positive side though. Very often, being nominated for a Brainstrain award is a wake-up call for its owner. Many use the nomination as an opportunity to look hard at their communication style and make really positive changes.

The Brainstrain award, along with its counterpart ‘Best Communication’ award, is sponsored very appropriately by public watchdog Consumer NZ. Thanks to Consumer NZ’s support, you can dob in a bad document, or praise an easy-to-read one.

Read about the special People’s Choice categories here

Who’s behind the Awards?

The Awards are offered by the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust, ably led by chair and well-known people’s advocate Gregory Fortuin. Premier sponsor Write Limited does the administration on behalf of the Trust.

Other valued sponsors provide much appreciated financial and in-kind support.

Do you think the Awards are making a difference?

Absolutely! The process leading to success in the Awards transforms some organisations and individuals into zealous advocates for plain English. We’re due to do another feedback survey early next year, but previous surveys have given us overwhelmingly positive comments from entrants and others. Here are a few of those comments:

The Awards are the premier benchmark for high standards and achievement in plain English. Success in the Awards shows we’re not only doing it [plain English], but doing it well and our expertise is being recognised.

Winning the award has raised the bar.

We were shocked by being a finalist for the Brainstrain Award. That spurred a huge project. I personally did lots of research on plain English and came up with our own web writing standards that exceed the e-government guidelines.

The Awards also act as a public watchdog, highlighting examples of poor writing that are barriers to good communication and people achieving what they want to do.

Image: Who's the clearest of them all?

Who’s the clearest of them all?

Posted In: Communications

More carrot than stick at the 2017 Plain English Awards.

More carrot than stick at the 2017 Plain English Awards. Image by Mali Maeder / CC0 License

Government agencies and commercial firms are again vying for honours in the annual Plain English Awards. Organisations are turning their back on corporate jargon, bureaucratic writing, and legalese.

Now in their 12th year, the Awards have an impressive track record. They encourage New Zealand organisations to favour clarity over complexity and celebrate those who choose to be clear.

The Awards are the premier benchmark for high standards and achievement in plain English. Success in the Awards shows we’re not only doing it [plain English], but doing it well and our expertise is being recognised.

Entries are open until August

Entries are open across nine categories. Awards are available for everything from superb sentence rewrites and document transformations, to recognition for people who campaign for clarity and their projects.

Entries are open now and will close on 31 August 2017.

Choose your category and enter the Awards


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Plain English Awards

Have you heard about the People’s Choice — Worst ‘Brainstrain’ Communication award? It’s the sibling of the People’s Choice — Best Communication award. Here are three things you need to know.

1. The Brainstrain award is the one award that organisations don’t really want to win. It reveals, in good humour, the document or website most notable for confusing and dumbfounding its target audience with obscurity and gobbledygook.

2. The ideal entry is a publicly available or widely used document or website that causes problems for many people.

3. By putting these confusing documents and web pages under the spotlight, we hope that the organisations responsible will rewrite them in beautifully plain English. And we’ve had some great turnaround stories prompted by this publicity.

So why not nominate a great or not-so-great document or website for one of the People’s Choice Awards.

Get involved with the People’s Choice Awards


Plain English Awards

Plain English Awards

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The fabulous trophy awaiting our winner

Did you miss us? Last year, the Awards took a partial break as major sponsor Write Limited was busy with the international Clarity2016 conference. We celebrated the People’s Choice Best and Brainstrain winners at a gala dinner with conference delegates.

This year we’re back in full force, with all the categories. We’re looking forward to New Zealand organisations getting in behind the Awards as you’ve done since 2006.

We couldn’t do it without our fabulous sponsors. Thanks to your generosity, we’re pretty sure the Awards will be bigger and better than ever in 2017.

2016 Awards

The fabulous trophy awaiting our winner

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Media release: 5 November 2016

People’s Choice awards for the best and worst of business writing were announced at a gala dinner in Wellington, New Zealand on Saturday, 5 November.

The award for the Best Plain English Communication was taken out by well-known economic consultancy firm, the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) ahead of a number of strong contenders. NZIER’s report on international trade and agreements and sovereignty, ISDS and Sovereignty, was judged to be an outstanding example of clarity and reader focus.

The judges, Sue Chetwin of Consumer NZ and plain language experts Simon Hertnon and Ralph Brown, had high praise for the writers: ‘The NZIER report is a breath of fresh air to readers used to struggling through lengthy, jargon-filled advisory documents.

‘We wish this style of advisory writing were the norm rather than the exception. Decision makers across New Zealand would not only be better informed, they would have more time and energy available to think about what to do with the advice they receive.’

Judges also praised the communications nominated for the two other finalists, calling’s Employment Agreement Builder ‘an impressive online tool’ and Z Energy’s annual report ‘zesty’ and ‘refreshingly engaging’.

As always, the winner of the dreaded ‘Brainstrain’ Communication award was announced at the ceremony. This award reveals, in good humour, the document most notable for dumbfounding readers with gobbledygook.

A job description produced by the Parliamentary Service was the dubious winner. The judges said the job description was ‘…a classic example of the myth that a verbose and impersonal document is somehow more professional than a concise and engaging one.’

To their credit, the Parliamentary Service took the award on the chin. They issued a response by way of a tongue-in-cheek video, shown to guests at the ceremony, in which they welcomed winning such a ‘prestigious’ award.

It’s not all bad news. Along with the traditional bin filled with sour worms, the winner of the Brainstrain award gets two hours free consultancy with Write Limited to start transforming the offending document, or another like it, into plain English.

The People’s Choice awards, one segment of the usual yearly Plain English Awards, were held this year as part of the Clarity2016 conference, an international gathering of plain language and communications specialists, legal writers, and business people.

Awards founder Lynda Harris says, ‘We’ve seen the Awards shift attitudes and expectations about communication in the business, professional, and public sectors. Organisations recognise that plain language is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s crucial to their success.’

The full Plain English Awards programme will resume in 2017.




Get more information:

Lynda Harris, founder of the WriteMark Plain English Awards, and 021 404990

Gregory Fortuin, Chair of the WriteMark Plain English Awards Trust, 021 465 254

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