Friday, June 17, 2005

December 2004

Eschew Obfuscation…Let Your Readers Chew on Clarity

By Matt Baron

Herewith is a body of writing that carries the sole aim of rendering its various and sundry points with an abundance of clear communication.

In other (much better) words, this is a column about clarity.

Please forgive the annoying first paragraph. I didn’t have my jargon-check activated. But what if I were to ask you to walk away for a few minutes and then repeat that silliness to someone else—and then they’d have the wonderful task of writing a story to appear in tomorrow’s newspaper.

Like the hilarious results of the “telephone game”—in which a circle of individuals go around whispering a phrase into the ear of the person next to them—we would likely read a dramatically different account than the one we delivered.

So who would be at fault?

Answer: The dude or dudette with the byline.

While it is tempting to fling at least some blame in the general direction of the techno-speak source, the bottom-line responsibility rests with the writer. We are not court reporters, faithfully quoting every nook and cranny of someone’s speech. We are news reporters, trimming the weeds of everyday language so that our readers can actually see a well-groomed garden.

In any kind of story telling, conveying the message clearly is paramount.

Your sources need to know that you have the ability to hear what they are saying, extract the relevant information accurately, and then relate it coherently to readers. And your readers ought to be able to get past the second paragraph without furrowing their brow. Some may even look forward to the third paragraph, bless their hearts.

In writing about all things numerical, jargon is one of the foremost enemies of clarity.

So don’t write about “tax abatements.” Focus on folks’ checkbooks. What does it mean to their bottom line? And is that abatement really so unusual, or is it fancy financial record-keeping? It may not even merit a story. I’ve taken a pass on abatements in two communities the past two years because I found it misleading, confusing and, ultimately, much ado about nothing to the average citizen.

Another example: When you talk to your spouse about major purchases, do you refer to them as “capital spending”? Probably not. So treat your readers the same way and use words they can readily latch onto.

Of course, it behooves sources to communicate in a manner that leaves little room for reporters to make mistakes. Take Jeremy Siegel, professor of finance at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has enjoyed a good relationship with reporters, he said in an interview at the World Business Forum in Chicago last month.

While other professors shy away from journalists, Siegel estimated he has been misrepresented in “no more than 1 percent” of stories in which he has appeared.
The key? “It’s a matter of speaking clearly,” said Siegel.

Moments later, he elaborated: “The most important thing is avoiding lingo and technical words that we insiders use. I try to avoid that all the time. You’ve got to be able to express it in English.”

The approach appears to have worked fairly well for Siegel. His book, Stocks for the Long Run, was tapped by the Washington Post as one of the ten best investment books of all time and he is sought after by numerous media outlets.

While we’re on the business front, here’s a memo from Jack Welch: follow the money flow.

Welch, the legendary CEO of General Electric until his retirement in 2001, was another speaker at the World Business Forum. In response to my question about what kind of data reporters overlook and overstate in their stories, Welch said company earnings get too much play and cash flow too little.

“Cash is really king,” Welch added. “We used to say cash flow, customer satisfaction and employee satisfaction were the measurements. And cash flow is sort of boring to journalists…the media loves to write about the short-term earnings.”

Reporters aren’t the only ones who have been out of whack in this respect. Welch said that undervaluing the significance of cash flow has not received enough attention from business analysts, and that oversight has contributed to some recent business collapses.

BARON BIT: Make sure statistics actually reveal something of interest. Consider David Letterman’s jibe: “USA Today has come out with a new survey - apparently, three out of every four people make up 75% of the population.”

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