Posts from the ‘Clarify’ Category
September 8, 2015
On International Literacy Day, Alice Albright, CEO of Global Partnership for Education, my client, discusses how reading initiatives in developing countries are promoting literacy. It’s a piece I helped develop, and it draws on just a few of the projects that the Global Partnership makes possible around the world. According to estimates by UNESCO, 757 million adults and 115 million youth are illiterate.
Click here to see the full article.
July 27, 2015
Here’s a piece I wrote for the blog of (my client) the Global Partnership for Education, the leading multilateral organization promoting and supporting the development of primary education systems in developing countries around the world.
It’s a summary of the UN’s 2015 Millennium Development Goals Report, which noted advances in primary school net enrollment rates, decreases in the number of out-of-school students, rises in literacy rates for children and adults and a growing balance – and, in many countries and regions parity between girls and boys who go to and complete primary school.
At the same time, the UN report showed that the poorest children are still far less likely than there relatively well-off counterparts to receive an education. In many countries there are still large numbers of children who do not go to primary school at all and even more who go but do not finish.
“Despite enormous progress during the past 15 years,” the report concludes, “achieving universal primary education will require renewed attention in the post-2015 era, just as the global community seeks to extend the scope to universal secondary education….Interventions will have to be tailored to the needs of specific groups of children — particularly girls, children belonging to minorities and nomadic communities, children engaged in child labor and children living with disabilities, in conflict situations or in urban slums.”
July 17, 2015
This September, the United Nations will commit to the new Sustainable Development Goals, which will succeed the Millennium Development Goals. The SDGs outline a new and ambitious worldwide effort to reduce poverty and hunger, improve health, enable equality, protect the planet and much more.
To illustrate that point, my client, the Global Partnership for Education, called on me to help them spell out the prominent evidence that real progress on all 17 of the new SDGs is only possible if all children receive a quality education.
March 8, 2015
On International Women’s Day, (my client) Global Partnership for Education recognizes in this post (with contributions by Weintraub Communications) 15 women who have helped promote girls’ education.
Two of those women, activist and philanthropist Graça Machel, and Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg wrote in 2014: “In childhood and adolescence, too many girls are undernourished, stunted, denied education and forced into early marriages. This creates a gender disparity that threatens to undermine stability in future generations and must be addressed by policymakers.”
Another, West African singer, songwriter and UNICEF International Goodwill Ambassador Angelique Kidjo, (at left in photo) told Al-Jazeera: “The problem we are having today is that girls in some countries, in some traditions, are still seen as [a] commodity. Therefore, they can be kidnapped. They can be married. The only thing that I know as an African person that can transform my continent is girls’ education.”
And Ann Cotton, the founder of the Campaign for Female Education, or Camfed, said last year of girls’ education that “there is a feeling, a zeitgeist, a global awareness around this issue, and we have to take advantage of it.”
[Photo above from: https://twitter.com/BatongaTweets/status/256062348073238528/photo/1]
March 6, 2015
Chernor Bah, a former refugee from the civil war in Sierra Leone, is a youth advocate for (our client) the Global Partnership for Education and a co-founder of A World at School, published this piece in The New York Times last fall with help from Weintraub Communications. He wrote:
“It made me realize that what may be in the shortest supply in Sierra Leone is hope for the future. Each day further into the epidemic, it becomes harder to imagine how to recapture time lost — not just in the caring of parents who have died, but in education when schools are closed, in income when people can’t work, in food cultivation and road-building when cash itself has run dry.
“Ebola is not just a health emergency. It is a tragedy that has swept away fragile new roots for a new society, put down after the decade of civil war. While a vast majority of Sierra Leone’s 6.1 million people have not been infected, Ebola has loosed many other threats that will linger long after the virus is quelled.”
February 27, 2014
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.
I 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.]
February 25, 2014
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.
“[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.
November 10, 2013
A COLLEGE WRITING TEACHER taught me one of the best lessons I ever learned about clarity in communications: it is the primary responsibility of the writer to ensure that the reader understands – not the other way around.
Sounds pretty basic, right? But I can’t tell you how often I see people in many different modes of communication ignore this idea, if they’re even aware of it to begin with. They apparently assume everyone knows what they’re saying when they go down the rabbit hole of insider jargon. Anyone who doesn’t, they seem to figure, is just stupid or not really paying attention.
Of course, the context matters. At a science conference, a scientist is more likely – and probably well advised – to use highly technical language to describe the results of her latest research. That’s when the shorthand really helps speed up and, yes, clarify what the speaker is trying to get across.
And there’s no question that there’s a fine line between simplifying for clarity and sounding glib or shallow. Each situation is different and requires us to modulate our language to fit the occasion based on what we know about our audience.
But some of the best communicators recognize that, even within their own circle of experts, plain language is much more effective.
Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, has this figured out. Watch just about any video of him speaking and you’ll see about as plain-speaking a guy as you’re going to find. With a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science and a long string of accomplishments in high-tech industries, he certainly has the capacity to get geeky.
But that’s not what happens here in this interview he gave the Financial Times in 2006 in the wake of Google’s $1.65 billion acquisition of YouTube.
Asked why this purchase was worth the money, Schmidt could have used terms like “market valuation,” “strategic integration,” “Web 2.0,” and so forth. But, even to pretty technically savvy readers of the FT, he explained simply that, first of all, Google’s got a great advertising model that will more than make up for the big money it paid for YouTube. Second, he said, video is where it’s at. Indeed, it’s the future, drawing growing volumes of users. (How right he was). He makes it sound so simple.
Paul Krugman, the New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist, is another with an extraordinary ability to make the complex understandable. Whether you agree with his sometimes confrontational views or not, you can learn a lot about clarity from his writing. Check him here.
I don’t want to pretend that this is easy. People like Schmidt and Krugman apparently have a natural gift for communicating, among other talents. Or maybe they acquired it, as many can, with hard work, regular practice and awareness of how they come off.
- Consider your audience. As I said, every situation is unique, and it’s up to the communicator to be as tuned in to what audiences will and won’t understand. Sometimes, as in a speech to a large and diverse audience, it’s tough to know precisely who is listening and what they know. In that case and others like it, you just have to make an educated guess and keep an eye, as best you can, on how they react. When developing a campaign, it’s ideal to use message and opinion research to figure out what kind of language is likely to resonate. That’s a more expensive and less spontaneous option, but sometimes, when the stakes are high enough, it’s a wise choice.
- Metaphor. Nothing too surprising here, but often it’s best to explain the unfamiliar with the familiar – some kind of image or anecdote that neatly draws the basics from a more complicated idea.
- Don’t tell them everything you know, just what they need to know. Most experts I’ve worked with who know a lot about their subject are brimming over with eagerness to share every thought and fact they’ve stored in their brain. To the uninitiated, that’s just too much to keep up with. The communicator needs instead to pare down all she knows to the bare essential. Dr. Susan Love did a masterful job of this a few years ago in the interview on NBC News about breast cancer research (see below) . She could have talked on and on about the technical details, disclaimers and exceptions. But knowing she only had a short window of time and a pretty diverse audience, she articulated her main message right away, dropped in one (and only one) illustrative statistic and cut right back to her main message. The result: clarity.
- Take the gloves off and then go back and cut – again and again. If you’re writing (or even editing in your head quickly), start by putting all your ideas down. Don’t worry about the order or the logic or even good grammar and punctuation. Just get it all out. Then start paring down the ideas, sentences and individual words to something more concise and accessible. If you see a long cluster of words describing one idea, go back and see if you can say the same thing in fewer, shorter words. About, oh, 100 percent of the time, I find something in my own writing to cut. When you do, your language will be more powerful and, most importantly, understandable to the people you’re trying to reach.
Is that clear?