Thursday, July 14, 2016

Their expertise is elsewhere

It never fails. Whenever I teach a class on media relations, someone trots out an official sounding fact about the decline of reading comprehension in the United States, and how you have to 'dumb down' whatever you are talking about when you address the public.

Go stand in the corner, dummy
I have heard the average reading comprehension drop from 10th grade about a dozen years ago to as low as third grade. Yes, I was told by someone who regularly addresses the public that the average reading comprehension of an American is on par with someone who is about eight years old.

To this, I say Hogwash.

The problem we have isn't that reading comprehension has dropped. No, the problem we have is that we - as specialized communicators - often overlook the fact that our audience knows a lot, but their expertise is elsewhere.

Rock on, my man!
Let me set up an example. You buy tickets to a concert. You go to the show, expecting awesome shredding lead guitar, gut busting drum solos and the lead singer to belt out the lyrics. Do you really want the band to take the stage to deliver a lecture on the importance of hand washing to prevent the flu? Not at $80 a ticket you don't!

What's wrong under the hood?
After the show, with your ears ringing and your adrenaline pumping, you start your car to head home, but it won't shift into drive. After fussing with the shift lever for a while, you call a tow truck to take your car to the garage. When the mechanic comes out to tell you what's wrong with your transmission, do you want her to pontificate about how long it will take to evacuate residents from a barrier island in the event of an approaching hurricane?  Heck no!  Fix the car and let's get moving again!

That's one mighty big heart you have there, doc!
With all of the stress, you notice that you are starting to experience chest pain. You call 9-1-1 and are whisked to the nearest hospital, where a cardiologist takes a look at you. When that doctor comes into your room after running a battery of tests, do you really want him to take the time to advocate for smoke detectors in your home? Of course not. You have more pressing matters on your mind!

Now, from this illustration, would you call any of these people ignorant?  On a third-grade level of intelligence?  Not a chance.  Each of these people has a tremendous amount of skill and knowledge developed over years of study and practice, but not in the field that you are an expert. While the public may do things that drive you mad with exasperation, just remember that they don't have the background in the topic you have. Add to that they also have to juggle getting the kids to practice, do grocery shopping, balance their checkbooks, plan when they will finally get around to painting the house - well, you get the idea.

So, how do we reach them?  Easy. Drop the jargon. Lose the acronyms. Remember you aren't speaking to peers in your discipline, but people who can learn if the information is presented in the right way. In other words, we need to stop looking down on the public we serve and understand a great truth that Albert Einstein grasped so well.

There. Now I will get off my soapbox.

Tom Iovino


  1. Study the facts. Reading levels are much lower than we realize. Research shows that as many as 50% of adults cannot read or gain actionable information from a food recall. Over 900,000 adult residents of New York City read below the 5th Grade level. Same is reported in the six largest cities in the U.S. On United Nations studies of reading, math and computer-based problem solving, the U.S. finished 8th from the bottom of 25 nations (source PIAAC).

  2. This fits with a philosophy I've used which is, "The expert is the person in the room that knows more about a particular topic than everyone else." Too often opportunities to teach are missed because we don't feel like we are the expert. I don't need my department's best HAZMAT person to teach housekeepers not to mix ammonia and bleach. I don't need our top wildfire person to explain how to extinguish a campfire. Sadly, too many of our front-line responders defer to the person they perceive as an "expert" when they are the expert at that given time and place.

  3. While in news, I was always told to write to an 8th grade level. The KISS principle is pretty darned reliable. I always scratch my head and wonder WTF when I hear an on-air meteorologist referring to "Towering C's" or an "Omega Block" as if the audience has any idea what those are.