Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Do the Chickens Have Large Talons?

If you’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, you know that the next line is, “Boy, I don’t understand a word you just said.”

Speaking—and writing—is a waste of breath and ink, respectively, if your audience doesn’t understand what you’re saying. “Know your audience” is one of the cornerstones of effective communications.

Here’s a case in point. I once participated in a workshop for writers who wanted to specialize in writing medical studies. (I wasn’t sure that I particularly wanted to, but my manager made up my mind for me.) During one exercise, each of the small groups was given a paragraph of a published document to deconstruct. After I gave my two cents, I listened to the conversations in the other groups. Here’s what I heard:

“I think what he means is …”

“I’m not sure, but maybe what he’s trying to say is …”

“Hmm. I don’t know what he’s trying to say.”

Now this was a peer-reviewed, published medical article. The instructor was using it to help us understand the deathless prose that we could look forward to writing.

Since I really don’t mind asking questions that some people might think are stupid, I raised my hand, described what I’d overheard, and asked, “Is there a reason why the author wrote this paper in a way that even seasoned professional writers couldn’t understand? Why in the world didn’t he write it so that his meaning was clear and unmistakable?”

After an embarrassed silence, the instructor pretended that I hadn’t spoken and launched into what sounded like a canned speech about the wonders and mysteries of medical writing.

I’d always assumed that PhDs, MDs, and other smarty-pants people who breathe the rarified air would prefer to read documents that are simple (not simple-minded), clear, and straightforward. Oh, well. Silly me.

I think I’ll stick with writing in a way so that the meaning is crystal clear to my audience. I’ll “eschew obfuscation,” thanks.

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