Fifteen years ago when I was a police Explorer in New Hampshire, I remember quite a debate over using 10 codes vs. plain English. 10 codes protected information from nosy reporters and civilians; plain English was less confusing for emergency responders, especially during incidents requiring multi-jurisdictional response.
All are arguments coming up yet again, as some agencies debate over whether to switch to plain English radio communications. In the years following 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as this NPR story points out, many have already switched; this PoliceOne.com article furthermore points out:
In December 2006 the National Incident Management System (NIMS) issued an alert mandating that first responders use plain language in multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency response. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) established the Plain Language Working Group in April 2009.
What does this have to do with social media?
David Konig at PIO Social Media Training notes, with regard to blogs:
While your target audience may understand specialized language, acronyms, and regional slang it is important to remember that they will not be the only ones looking at what you create. Not communicating using common terms will limit the ability for your message to be understood by a broader audience.
Jargon is easy to slip into for a variety of reasons. You can’t think of how else to describe something, or you’re talking to someone else who you know (or think you know) will understand what you mean, or – subconsciously – you may even be trying to show you belong to a certain group.
But think about the points raised by former prosecutor and trainer Val Van Brocklin in this Officer.com article about cops “talking funny” on the stand. “When you talk like that,” she writes, “you sound like somebody who’s full of himself or who’s trying to hide the truth in a mountain of syllables – both are stereotypes we do NOT need to be reinforcing with jurors.”
Making the switch
Transitioning to plain English has been difficult for law enforcement agencies. It’s been talked about for at least 15 years if not longer, took five years after 9/11 for NIMS to create a directive, and another three years after that for the OEC to establish the working group.
So don’t expect to be able to to use it right away in your blog or podcast. It may even seem unnatural after years of speaking an almost legalese-type “language.” But do practice. Van Brocklin’s approach: practice with flash cards. Write one jargon phrase on the front, and a plain-English phrase on the back. Practice with your spouse or even a child.
For a blogger, though, this may not be enough. Certainly, the spoken word can reinforce the written, and vice versa. But if you plan to write regularly, you should practice writing too.
Creative writing teachers sometimes give an exercise: write something from the point of view of a person who is explaining an incident to their best friend, their mother, their spouse, their boss, a group of strangers, and yes, the police.
The exercise is meant to put a writer more solidly into the mind of the character he’s writing. But for a blogger, it should put you more solidly in your reader’s minds. Because you’re writing (or podcasting) for all those people, to get them to really think about what you say, you need to speak in terms they understand best.
How often do you slip into jargon? Can you practice “plain English” at least once per day?
Image: chargrillkiller via Flickr