To say what we mean is harder than it seems.
Everyone who’s ever been in a fight with a loved one knows that.
But right now, when much of what we read online is doubted, second-guessed or assumed to be fake, getting our message across clearly is more important than ever.
I chafe a bit at giving Trump any sort of credit, but one thing he’s really good at is speaking simply. Even when the meaning is unclear or even totally false, we can follow what he says because he speaks in simple sentences, often not more than a handful of one-syllable words.
If we want to fight back, we have to be able to communicate our own complex messages just as simply.
How can we demonstrate that our scientists, green advocates and environmental groups are worthy of support if the message gets lost in translation?
We must communicate clearly.
It’s really that simple.
Except, of course, it’s not.
Scientists and other technical professions have been trained for years that writing in a simple style will somehow convey that they themselves are, in fact, simple.
Simple writing, to many, makes them feel uneducated.
Nothing could be further from the truth. To write simply is the most complex writing style of all. To convey a complex idea in a simple way takes serious thought and effort.
The master of nonfiction writing, William Zinsser, had some perfectly clear advice to scientists (of course, that was his point) in his masterpiece On Writing Well.
Another way of making science accessible is to write like a person and not like a scientist.
Tricky for the average scientist, who has been trained to use jargon, trained to write in complex, complicated sentences, and trained to strip away any of their own personality.
Jargon. The very word conveys it’s own complicated, unnecessary meaning.
Jargon is simply words that are common in a particular field, and words that only those in a particular field are comfortable using.
For example, it’s useful in a peer-reviewed, scientific journals to use the word “precipitation.” It has a particular meaning that would take up too much space to spell out in smaller words.
But, when you are trying to communicate your ideas to people outside your profession, why say, “We are currently experiencing a severe lack of precipitation,” when you could simply say, “It’s not raining enough”?
To use jargon in today’s communication may make you feel smart, but you’ll come across as confusing and arrogant.
And those messages are deleted faster than you can say precipitation.
Using jargon is equal to telling the people who want to support you that you’re smarter than they are.
You’re clearly telling them you have the upper hand, you know more than they do. While they’re busying trying to get the sand out of their eyes, you can interpret the world for them, since they can’t see.
But that’s not your job. Your job is to convey the facts. Maybe interpret some things to make it relevant to the average person’s life.
Your job is to make your scientific information so crystal clear and easy to understand that your reader can make their own decisions.
You want to be able to lead your loyal reader to a place of such clarity that not only they understand what you’re talking about, but they can turn around and explain it to someone else.
Lose the vanity.
Everyone is suspicious of arrogance, so why do we go through such efforts to sound smarter than the next guy?
Confession time. I frequently will write something for a client and take it down to the roots and put it in terms everyone can relate to.
It then, of course, goes through a series of eyes before it is published. These eyes are much more involved in the subject and of course, much more knowledgeable than I am.
And that’s where it usually gets ruined. Especially when it makes its way back to the scientist who is charge of the project.
They take out “lots of different animals” and put back in “an abundance of biodiversity,” take out “rain and snow” and put back in “various precipitation events.”
To quote Mr. Zinsser again, to my environmental communication comrades…
Your responsibility is to the facts and to the reader, not to the vanity of the scientist.
Get some help.
Look, I don’t usually do this. And don’t take my word for it. Go back and read some of my other articles to be sure I provide good content, and not use my blog as a way to promote my own business.
But the environment in under threat, and now is not the time to be vain or be cagey about your own strengths and weakness.
If you are so smart that you simply can’t write “lots of animals” in the place of “biodiversity,” it’s time to get some help.
Find someone like me that can be your translator. Be true to your own strengths. Revel in them, highlight them. But be equally as true to your weakness and let others help you out.
Trust me, everyone needs help.