TED2010

Alan Siegel: Let's simplify legal jargon!

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Tax forms, credit agreements, healthcare legislation: They're crammed with gobbledygook, says Alan Siegel, and incomprehensibly long. He calls for a simple, sensible redesign -- and plain English -- to make legal paperwork intelligible to the rest of us.

- Executive, simplicity guru
A branding expert and one of the leading authorities on business communication, Alan Siegel wants to put plain English into legal documents for government and business. Full bio

So, basically we have public leaders,
00:15
public officials who are out of control;
00:18
they are writing bills that are unintelligible,
00:21
and out of these bills are going to come
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maybe 40,000 pages of regulations, total complexity,
00:25
which has a dramatically negative impact on our life.
00:30
If you're a veteran coming back from Iraq or Vietnam
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you face a blizzard of paperwork to get your benefits;
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if you're trying to get a small business loan,
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you face a blizzard of paperwork.
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What are we going to do about it? I define simplicity
00:45
as a means to achieving clarity,
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transparency and empathy,
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building humanity into communications.
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I've been simplifying things for 30 years.
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I come out of the advertising and design business.
00:58
My focus is understanding you people,
01:01
and how you interact with the government
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to get your benefits,
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how you interact with corporations to decide whom you're going to do business with,
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and how you view brands.
01:12
So, very quickly, when President Obama said,
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"I don't see why we can't
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have a one-page, plain English consumer credit agreement."
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So, I locked myself in a room,
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figured out the content,
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organized the document, and wrote it in plain English.
01:30
I've had this checked by the two top
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consumer credit lawyers in the country.
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This is a real thing.
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Now, I went one step further and said,
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"Why do we have to stick with the stodgy lawyers
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and just have a paper document? Let's go online."
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And many people
01:48
might need help in computation.
01:50
Working with the Harvard Business School,
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you'll see this example when you talk about minimum payment:
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If you spent 62 dollars for a meal,
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the longer you take to pay out that loan,
02:01
you see, over a period of time using the minimum payment
02:04
it's 99 dollars and 17 cents.
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How about that? Do you think your bank is going to show that to people?
02:09
But it's going to work. It's more effective
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than just computational aids.
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And what about terms like
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"over the limit"?
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Perhaps a stealth thing.
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Define it in context. Tell people what it means.
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When you put it in plain English,
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you almost force the institution
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to give the people a way, a default out of that,
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and not put themselves at risk.
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Plain English is about
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changing the content.
02:36
And one of the things I'm most proud of
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is this agreement for IBM.
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It's a grid, it's a calendar.
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At such and such a date, IBM has responsibilities,
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you have responsibilities.
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Received very favorably by business.
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And there is some good news to report today.
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Each year, one in 10 taxpayers
02:54
receives a notice from the IRS.
02:56
There are 200 million letters that go out.
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Running through this typical letter that they had,
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I ran it through my simplicity lab,
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it's pretty unintelligible.
03:06
All the parts of the document in red are not intelligible.
03:08
We looked at doing over 1,000 letters that cover
03:12
70 percent of their transactions in plain English.
03:14
They have been tested in the laboratory.
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When I run it through my lab,
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this heat-mapping shows everything
03:21
is intelligible.
03:23
And the IRS has introduced the program.
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(Applause)
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There are a couple of things going on right now
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that I want to bring to your attention.
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There is a lot of discussion now
03:37
about a consumer financial protection agency,
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how to mandate simplicity.
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We see all this complexity.
03:43
It's incumbent upon us,
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and this organization, I believe,
03:47
to make clarity, transparency
03:49
and empathy a national priority.
03:52
There is no way that we should allow government
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to communicate the way they communicate.
03:57
There is no way we should do business
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with companies that have agreements
04:01
with stealth provisions and that are unintelligible.
04:04
So, how are we going to change the world?
04:06
Make clarity, transparency and simplicity a national priority.
04:08
I thank you.
04:13
(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Alan Siegel - Executive, simplicity guru
A branding expert and one of the leading authorities on business communication, Alan Siegel wants to put plain English into legal documents for government and business.

Why you should listen

Almost nothing so mundane renders as many beads of sweat on the foreheads of the citizens of the United States than the looming of April 15, the day of the dreaded yearly income tax mail-ins. But Alan Siegel says the better portion of that anxiety ain't necessarily the pay hit -- it's navigating the legendarily confusing jungle of jargon (and cluttered checkboxes) that constitutes the IRS's tax forms. It's more than a question of convenience to individuals, he emphasizes; as our society's systems get more complicated, the perplexing legal documents that make them run are becoming more of a drain, undermining our potential prosperity.

It's also a problem that's bigger than taxes; it's even bigger than the United States. Siegel, one of the world's foremost branding experts (he's founder and chairman of brand consultancy Siegel+Gale) notes that the world is suffering from an epidemic of legalese: fear of loopholes and lawsuits is forcing the world's attorneys, contract designers and EULA scribes to take their art form to historically impenetrable lows.

Better for us, Siegel has spent decades as a pioneer in the practice of simplification -- as he says, "bringing clarity to such daunting documents as insurance policies, bank loans, mutual fund agreements" and government communications. He hopes to transform the idea of document simplicity from a creative principle into an aggressive movement for change.

Siegel was recently director of a project for the IRS to simplify US income tax forms. He has written on the topic for the New York Times, Across the Board, and the National Law Journal.

See his simplified IRS form [pdf] >>

See his simplified credit card agreement [pdf] >>

More profile about the speaker
Alan Siegel | Speaker | TED.com