Want to communicate effectively? Cut the crap.

In a previous post I discussed the importance of understanding your target audience when trying to communicate with them effectively. Equally important is speaking their language.

I’ve spent much of my career in the environmental nonprofit world, where there is no shortage of complex language, jargon, and acronyms. Not surprising, since it’s a field grounded in the natural sciences, with lots of incredibly smart people who received higher degrees from impressive education institutions. It’s a culture of intelligent individuals trained by academia to study and solve complicated and difficult problems. The problem is that the people whose support they want may not be like them.

Sure, their audiences care about the environment, but they may have different backgrounds, different educational training, and different professions. They may not be comfortable with complicated language that’s difficult to decipher, let alone terminology and acronyms they’ve never seen before. Just as you need to understand the interests and values of your target audience, you also need to understand how to communicate with them. So if you want to communicate to them effectively, you need to cut the crap.

That’s right: cut the crap.

What does that mean? It means exactly what you think it does: be clear, be concise, and cut to the chase. Get to the heart of the matter and use simple language so your audience doesn’t have to decode your message. (Simple language doesn’t mean you have to dumb things down – just that you should use common words and syntax to talk about complicated things.) Don’t make it difficult for your audience to understand you, and don’t distract them away from your primary message.

Scientists are notorious for being poor communicators because they’re too smart for their own good – they know a lot and they have their own culture where certain language and terminology is accepted, even expected. But it’s not just scientists with this problem: every organization has its own culture where certain concepts, terms, and acronyms become commonplace. The problem is that when we speak with “outsiders” we tend to still use the same language we use with our colleagues – the language that we are comfortable with, even if our audience is not. But communications isn’t about us. It’s about them.

So what is an organization to do? The first would be to keep internal language in check. Yes, it’s convenient to use short-hand and acronyms for more efficient communication, but again, the more you use that language, the more you’re training yourselves to speak that way with those outside your organization. The second thing is to cut the crap. Review your written communications and make sure you’re communicating simply, clearly, and concisely. Prepare yourself for verbal communications, whether it’s with a funder, a partner, a donor, or anyone else. Keep things simple and to the point.

It may be difficult for you to do at first, but it won’t be difficult for your audience. And that’s the whole point.


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