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Monday
Mar312014

Expertise or Expert-ese?

Last week I went to the Dirksen Senate Office Building to attend a briefing, which is not a thing I typically do.  But there was a bill under discussion that I am particularly interested in. And the panelists included activists and advocates, some of whom I had heard speak before, and others I knew by reputation. I was pretty sure it would be a lively--and provocative--gathering.

The panelists spoke about strategies for getting the word out about this legislation and for helping the Senate and House co-sponsors get more support, as well as why this particular piece of legislation really needed to be passed soon--like yesterday! There was a palpable excitement, an electricity that permeated the room as they delivered their prepared remarks with conviction and purpose.

They knew their audience, and they spoke their language. Except the economist. She was there to make the economic case for passing this bill, and had provided a series of graphs in the briefing packet. Her presentation consisted of going through each of them and . . . well, just reading the data. Thud. The room deflated, like a balloon that had suddenly lost its air. OK, I thought, maybe she is kind of economist that does research and presents data without drawing conclusions. In a disciplined, matter-of-fact way. But why would you include someone like that on your panel when every minute counts? In those situations, it is best to seek out speakers who maximize their time supporting the message and engaging the audience.

In the follow-up Q & A period some other experts were on hand in the audience. Representatives from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) got up to share their analysis of the issues addressed by the bill. CRS is a really cool branch of Library of Congress that does all sorts of research for members of Congress to help with the legislative process. I wish I could say their presentation was all very interesting, but it was not. I could feel the eyes glazing over, the heads nodding. Phones all around the room were suddenly being checked. I am sure the CRS experts' findings were extremely important, and would have been helpful to all of us trying advance this bill. But we couldn't follow them! It felt like that time I walked into English 355 by mistake Freshman year, and heard all sorts of undoubtedly English language words used in combinations I could not make sense of. Not knowing the context, I was lost. Some people call this "insider language." Others call it "jargon." Whatever you call it, it is bound to frustrate people if they can't understand. Even (or maybe, especially) people who are already on your side.

Organizers of panels everywhere need to ask themselves, are the experts I am using more likely to confuse my audience than not? Are they there to obfuscate or clarify? If I want them to clarify, it is imperative I make sure they do. I must remind them to forgo "expert-ese" and speak the common language.

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