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Clarity at the Pentagon?

February 27, 2014

Jeff Weintraub

In today’s National Journal, defense policy correspondent Sara Sorcher put her finger on one of the Pentagon’s most obvious communications problems: the frequent inability to speak in plain English.

1280px-The_Pentagon_January_2008bI don’t mean to be disrespectful. I’ve met so many impressive, extraordinary people in the military who perform miracles every day. But if you’ve spent even a little time around military folks, you’ll probably experience exactly what I have in my limited exposure to them. I can usually follow them to a point. But all of the sudden, what they’re saying sounds like Chinese to me. Between the profusion of clever, though sometimes tortured acronyms and terms that the lay person could interpret many ways, it’s too often hard to tell what they’re saying. I would bet that many military people themselves get confused by this exotic language.

And I’m not picking only on the military. Talk to anyone from nearly any agency across the government, or to people from specialized sectors in various private industries, and I guarantee you’ll have the same experience.

We all do it. We fall back on the comfortable and familiar terminology, unconscious to how they’re being heard. But, if we care about being understood and getting what we want out of a communication, we have to step back and define terms, describe the ideas behind the jargon and acronyms and, most of all, pay attention to how our audiences are reacting. When you see the eyes glaze over, you know it’s time to try something else.

Sorcher’s article highlights how some Pentagon leaders are getting that message:

“We aren’t communicating. We were not able to communicate the impact of sequester last year,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox told an audience Wednesday at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. “Because we talked about readiness, and nobody knows what readiness is…. We go into Pentagon-speak, I get it.”

Pentagon officials are already taking a new tack on their informational charm offensive: a little straight talk.

It’s not just that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel previewed his budget proposal a full week before the giant tome lands on lawmakers’ desks on March 4. His deputies—Fox, his comptroller Robert Hale, and chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall—are all over Washington at industry conferences and think tanks explaining exactly what was cut in the budget, and what was spared, and why.

The Pentagon’s budget, too, is finally spelling out exactly what will suffer if Congress does not give them extra money, after years of failing to plan for the worst. For example, the Army, which will shrink by some 40,000 troops in next year’s request, could lose another 30,000 troops the following year if the military does not get more money. The Pentagon will have to retire an aircraft carrier; the entire KC-10 tanker fleet will be cut.

After years of vague warnings, the Pentagon’s newfound transparency means members of Congress will finally be able to feel the political impact on their districts from defense cuts of this magnitude.

Will it work? It’s hard to say. There are many factors — political and fiscal — that figure into Congress’ calculations about military spending. But clear and understandable language is a great place to start.

[Photo of the Pentagon above by David B. Gleason.]

Alan Alda on Clarity

February 25, 2014

Jeff Weintraub

Today’s New York Times features an interview with the actor Alan Alda, who, it turns out, has had a lifelong fascination with science. Not enough, apparently, to keep him from his successful acting career. But enough that he has brought his experiences as an actor — essentially a storytelling vocation — to help scientists communicate better. It’s all a great example of the power and importance of clarity — something people in all sectors, not just science, can benefit from.

alda“[S]cientists often don’t speak to the rest of us the way they would if we were standing there full of curiosity,” Alda tells the Times. “They sometimes spray information at us without making that contact that I think is crucial. If a scientist doesn’t have someone next to them, drawing them out, they can easily go into lecture mode. There can be a lot of insider’s jargon.

“If they can’t make clear what their work involves, the public will resist advances. They won’t fund science. How are scientists going to get money from policy makers, if our leaders and legislators can’t understand what they do? I heard from one member of Congress that at a meeting with scientists, the members were passing notes to one another: ‘Do you know what this guy is saying?’ ‘No, do you?’”

For many years, Alda addressed this problem by hosting a popular television series called “Scientific American Frontiers.” His approach was to interview — really, to have a conversation with — top scientists, allowing them to put something of their own personality into their explanations of their work. “Over the years, I must have done around 700 of these interviews, and I felt that in doing them I had stumbled onto something that could help solve a big problem the science community faces,” he said.

Along the way, Stonybrook University established the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which “works to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline,” and where Alda offers services as what he calls a “drive-by lecturer.”

He says that what he teaches is “clarity, it’s not dumbing down. But it’s also talking in a way that’s relatable, where you can speak in terms that a person understands in an personal way.”

“[W]e don’t do comedy improvisation or making things up,” he adds. “The object is to put people through games and exercises that force them to make contact with the other player. You have to observe the other person, anticipate what they are going to do. You almost have to read their minds. We teach other skills too: how to distill their messages, how to do on-camera interviews, how to speak on panels. These are all things scientists have not been trained for and it’s useful for them to know.

He was a big science fan as a kid and “when I was in my early 20s,” Alda said, “I started reading every article of every issue of Scientific American. At the time, I’d been reading a lot about the paranormal and telepathy, and I thought Scientific American would help me know if any of that was true. There, I discovered a whole other way to think, based on evidence.”

For the last few years, the Stonybrook Center has run a project called “The Flame Challenge.” “It’s something from my childhood,” Alda explains. “When I was about 11, I got obsessed with what was happening in a flame. I tried to figure out why they were so different from anything else I had ever seen. It gave off heat and light and you could put your finger through it — it didn’t have substance, apparently. There was nothing like it. So I asked a teacher. ‘It’s oxidation!’ she said, flatly. No elaboration. It shut me down.

“So we started a contest for scientists: Tell us what a flame is in a way that an 11-year-old can understand. The point was to challenge scientists to explain something difficult in words that were both easy to understand and accurate. The first year we had 6,000 entries — kids and scientists. Now we have 20,000. This year, the question is ‘What is color?'”

All this is brilliant and, as I said, not just for scientists. It’s for everyone who knows a lot about a subject and has to explain what they know to others who don’t — which, for most people, is most of the rest of the world. It’s about boiling complex ideas to their simplest and most understandable essence and being conscious not just of what you’re saying but how you’re being heard.


Image above from NYTimes video interview.

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