Keeping it simple does not mean being simple minded

Yes, I know this has nothing to do with international journalism, but it does have to do with communicating complicated ideas in a simple manner. And that is part of what journalists need to do with international affairs.

Scientists are not natural communicators. There are the exceptions, such as Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Phil Plait, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and a handful of others, but these are the few in a field of hundreds, if not thousands.

I just saw the latest NASA press release about the SLS — the Space Launch System.

The text is fine.

For those lucky enough to be at or near Kennedy Space Center when a Space Launch System rocket leaves Earth for the first time, it will be an unforgettable experience.

Any rocket launch is amazing to witness in person, but the rise of a truly powerful launch vehicle, like the space shuttle or the Saturn V, is a different thing altogether. It’s not merely impressive; it’s visceral. It’s not something you witness; it’s something you experience, a brightness that seems like the sky has split open, a sound that you hear with your entire body, a power that passes into and through you.

The accompanying graphic, however, not so much.

I mean, really? WTF is an “Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage”? Give us the plain English version. A simple “Upper Stage Unit” would have been nice. Save the technical, official terms for in-house and geeks.

Now compare the NASA descriptions with Randall Munroe’s (of XKCD fame) blueprint of the Saturn V rocket:

Up Goer Five

Maybe the description for the “Part that falls off third” could have included how it gives the spacecraft a big boost to get to the planet they want to go to.

While Munroe takes some of the idea of simplifying terms a bit too far — but who will deny a cartoonist the right to reach to the extreme ends of an idea — he makes a great point that too many in communications forget: Make the information understandable to the general public. That goes for journalists and public relations types.

My university journalism and public relations students learned early on that I frown on big words when little ones will do. See the rules of writing at the end of George Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language or  Mark Twain (“Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.”)

To be clear, scientists are not the only ones who get lost in the terms of their industry. One of the most boring meetings I ever had was when an official of the US Agency for International Development briefed a congressional team about work being done in a particular country. The AID activities were exciting and groundbreaking.

Unfortunately, the official giving the briefing used acronyms and terms specific to the development community in a monotone voice. I was interested in learning more about the projects — I only knew bits and pieces — but within 5 minutes I was fighting to stay awake.

I would not have been surprised if the congress critters and their staffers hustled back to the States and tried to cut the AID budget just to get back at being bored to death for more than an hour.

To be clear, I have also seen really good AID briefings. So there has been some progress.

International affairs, the law, science, development, economics and the arts all have specific terms that are vital to making sure people within those fields understand what is being said. For the rest of us, however, we need every day English.

When I covered the law, I took a page out of the Lyle Denniston book.  If a lawyer could not explain a Supreme Court decision or new law without using legal terms, I would search out a lawyer who could. I needed to understand the issue in terms my readers would understand. And my readers were not dummies. They just weren’t lawyers.

For an example of how Denniston addressed the very complicated issue of the Affordable Care Act and birth control, read his blog entry on this subject: The ACA birth-control controversy, made simple. Simple words but not simple analysis.

Same goes for all the other professions. We need scientists, diplomats, artists, etc who can explain their fields in short declarative sentences without using terms of art.

And we need reporters who demand these professionals fully explain what they do and why in simple direct language.


Footnote: Munroe has a book coming out called Thing Explainer. It is a larger treatment of the “Up Goer Five” cartoon above. He looks at loads of highly technical things and explains them using only 1,000 of the most common words in the (American) English language.

You can advance order the book here. It comes out November 24, 2015.

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