Posted on October 6, 2017

This past summer, I had the pleasure to hear a presentation from the former President of the Trust for Governors Island, Leslie Koch. If you haven’t heard of her, you should look her up. She transformed an abandoned military base into a beautiful public space, attracting people from all over the world.
Not only is she one heck of a visionary, she has a refreshing perspective on how we, government folks, communicate, or better yet how we don’t, but ought to communicate. Leslie made one resounding statement that was so obvious and important, it followed me home. She said, “When you are designing for people, use people language.”
So what is this statement all about? Government, like many industries, has industry language. It’s the organizational or professional association-driven insider words or concepts that at the end of the day mean nothing to real people, except for that small in-crowd that gets it. Let’s call it Gov-Speak. And it can be brutal.
For example, have you ever been on the receiving end of public meeting, or cross-departmental meeting when the acronyms start coming out? Then, you have a few options: 1) Zone out 2) Nod as if you know what’s going on, pretend to get an urgent work text while franticly googling said acronym, or 3) Ask. I often preface the ask with….”I should probably know this, but what is the BLE?” (For those just dying to know, the BLE is the City of Charlotte’s Blue Line Extension, our light rail transit line.) And the list of industry specific language is long because we have so many specialists in organizations, from engineers to human resource experts, to planners.
One I found myself tossing around the other day – placemaking. Well not surprisingly, a resident said to me, “What is that…umm… exactly?” Oh, “It’s creating beautiful public spaces together with people like you and the rest of the community, where people will want to hang out together.” I could have just said that in the beginning.
If one thing is for sure, it’s that most of us do this, and we don’t even notice. We are losing people by not talking to them in ways that are direct, explanatory, and keep the end-user of the project or program we are talking about in mind (especially when that’s our residents).
Here are a few hot tips to help us break the vicious cycle:

  • Acronyms in general, just don’t use them. Really is there a reason?
  • Use language for people, not robots. Best way to test this it to explain to someone who isn’t in your organization, what you are trying to express. My mom is really good for this. Even better, explain to someone outside your bubble of common understanding, someone that has a different background than you (whether it’s ethnicity, or socio-economic, or just doesn’t run in your regular circle).
  • When you hear something confusing, speak up. You can do this for yourself or when you see someone in the room in utter confusion and you know exactly why. Pause the conversation and help restate what is trying to be communicated.

Because language, messages, and accessible communication matter. They matter because they lead to understanding or confusion. They matter because they include or exclude. They matter because talking to people like people shows you care. And let’s be honest, when we use Gov-Speak, it turns people off, who we need and want to care too.

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