The Words I Want to Hear: Campfire Notebook #17
Can you really tell a story if no one understands a word of what you’re saying?
In my previous post on storytelling in science, I commented that many researchers tend to apply their “science speak” to any communication they make about their research. Over the next few posts in this series, I’ll expand more on what makes information “sticky”.
If we agree that storytelling in science is important, then we need to make sure that people connect with the narrative you’re sharing.
But we have to go back a step earlier when it comes to science. Will people understand it? It’s not a matter of intelligence of your audience, but how academia or government typically shares its information.
Specifically, when writing up the results of a study, or a policy position, people love to use the worst possible words: jargon, acronyms known by only a select few, and big, meaty words that just sound smart, but which only obfuscate.1
Slaying the Gobbledygook
Liverpool, England is well known for those four guys who played music. And my sister’s favourite Premiership team. What I didn’t know before preparing this post is that it is also the birthplace of the plain language movement.
In the 1970s, Liverpool was in the depths of an economic crisis. Unemployment was high. One stay-at-home mom of four, only having just learned to read herself in her late ‘teens, watched her college-educated friends and neighbours struggle with official government forms as they tried to apply for benefits.
It didn’t make any sense to her. Why make it so complicated? And if someone with a university degree couldn’t understand, where did it leave people like her, with less formal education?
So Chrissie Maher engaged her community and did something about it. First, she lead the creation of a community newspaper in clear language to share local news. As the need grew, though, she realized she needed to go beyond the L1. Leading several people to London, Chrissie launched the Plain English Campaign in spectacular fashion, by publicly shredding government forms and pamphlets full of '“gobbledygook” until her arrest.
Her arrest is the icing on the clarity cake. Upon hearing the officer recite the section of the Criminal Code permitting him to arrest her, Chrissie asked, “Does that gobbledygook mean we have to go?”
We stan a queen.
Given that response, you can likely tell that a simple arrest wouldn’t stop her. Rather, it only served to stoke the fire further, committing her down a path of slaying “utter drivel” from official documents. Forty-some years, and an OBE and an honorary PhD later, the Plain English Campaign continues to advocate for clear documents.
(Let’s also pause here for a moment, and consider the power of one person. Chrissie’s story illustrates so beautifully how one person can make a massive impact if they give a hoot and are determined to see it through.)
Smartening It Up: Some Tips.
As health research in general shifts to be more patient- and public-oriented, using plain language to make the information easily accessible by anyone, regardless of background, is essential. But there’s a common misconception that plain language is “dumbing it down”. It’s not:
It’s creating a map that all your readers can navigate. If your story is in plain language, feel free to let fly with complex ideas and literary devices. Your readers can handle it.
In my experience, the challenge (and arguably, duty) is for the author. If you’ve trained to write in the disinterested affect of science, (un)learning that writing style for a simpler prose is oddly HARD. It can feel like you’re a robot trying to pick out a song in staccato on a toy piano; the writing feels stilted, strange.
But keep practicing. There are good supporting resources out there - when I’m stuck, I usually turn to the US Government for general tips on crafting plain language texts, and the University of Michigan for translating medical terms.
Also, having a second reader review the translated text is helpful (especially if they’re one of the original authors). Ask them, “Does my plain language summary still make sense? Is a key technical term missing?2 Did I wrongly interpret your work?” Folks are usually quite happy that you’re the one tackling the translation into plain language, so simply reviewing the revised text is gladly accepted.
One Decoder Ring to Rule Them All
I commented earlier that, if we want our listeners or readers to remember the information we’re sharing in stories - even better, to have people connect to our words on a personal, emotional level - we need them to first understand it. But I actually think it goes further than being kind to your readers. Fundamentally, it’s about being approachable and open, and connecting to others as equals.
It’s democratizing science by giving people the secret decoder ring to your work.
That’s powerful stuff.
So once we’ve removed the words, how do we spin a yarn if writing stories is new to you? In my next post on storytelling, we’ll look at the lessons we can learn from storytelling masters…in Russian literature?!
What are your challenges in writing in plain language? If you haven’t tried yet, do you have questions I haven’t answered? Let me know in the comments below!
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Is there a funnier word that sounds exactly like the meaning of it? (“Moist” doesn’t count, because that’s not funny, but gross.)
Plain language doesn’t advocate for removing technical terms if they are key. If you’ve truly determined that they are important, I would include a plain language definition of that term.