Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Does simple=stupid in speaking? Why Congress's report card isn't bad

With headlines like Study: Congressional Speech Drops Grade Level and Congress quite literally talks like a bunch of 15-year-olds, you could almost hear the laughter and head-shaking going on as people learned about the Sunlight Foundation's annual study of what it calls "the complexity of congressional speech patterns." Media coverage went for the snark, with terms like "dumbing down" and "mental teenagers" to describe the shift in vocabulary that has members of the U.S. Congress speaking at one grade level lower than they did seven years ago, around the sophomore level in high school.
Coverage sped past the foundation's note that what some might interpret as a dumbing down of Congress, others will see as more effective communications. And lawmakers of both parties still speak above the heads of the average American, who reads at between an 8th and 9th grade level.
In all that coverage, the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune was a rare voice expressing Our view: Congressional speech is easier to understand. Some of the members of Congress ranked as simple speakers defended the practice, as did freshman Rep. Mick Mulvaney. "People have been teaching this for decades," he said on CNN. "If you want someone to understand your message, you speak clearly and concisely."

My question is simply this: Since when did speaking simply equal stupid in public speaking?

Congressman Mulvaney is right: Those of us who coach speakers aim for clear and concise in communications. But that's not the same as "dumbing down" your content, by any means, and in fact, it's a tougher intellectual exercise to be clear than it is to use the jargon you find so familiar. As health reporter Ivan Oransky likes to say, he wants sources to "talk to me like I'm your smart 14-year-old nephew."

I've trained thousands of scientists, engineers and other smart experts in all disciplines, from physics to public policy, and in my experience, the suggestion that you have to dumb down your content is just a powerful way to say "I don't know how to do this any other way, and I don't want to try." It's your audience that must be at fault, not you, in that line of thinking. I think we also try to bring good speakers "down a peg" by mocking them for being clear and simple. Would we really like it better if we didn't understand them?

Effective speakers know that most public audiences prefer you to omit jargon and cut to the chase: What's the bottom line? After we know that, you might have our interest secured and be able to add in some detail. Without clarity, however, you'll lose the listeners.

That's true even when technical speakers are trying to balance technical vs. non-technical language for a mixed audience of experts and generalists. Technical experts also enjoy talks that are clear, concise and engaging. Who wouldn't? You can always fill in the details in the Q&A, or refer the experts in the audience to more information on a website.

How do you feel about members of Congress speaking simply? Share your views in the comments.

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