Spitfire Strategies

Simple Tricks for Expert Spokespeople

A highly credentialed nurse in my Spokesperson 101 training confessed that she doesn’t like working with media. “I avoid it,” she said, “because they always edit me, and then it’s not accurate.” It’s easy to understand how she feels. It can seem impossible to explain expert-level information in the kind of sound bites journalists look for and we worry that our words could be misconstrued. But when the stakes are high for public understanding, experts should put just as much energy into being accessible as they do into being accurate.

This is true across many fields. Environmental scientists need us to understand how our actions affect the climate in order to stop climate change. Technical jargon used to describe severe weather can create panic and confusion that public safety officials must then battle to let us know how to respond to real emergencies. Even though most economists agree on many basic policy questions, economists are rarely the ones explaining economic policy to the public. 

Here’s how to find a balance between accuracy and accessibility that expresses the right information in a way we can understand:

Ask yourself: what’s the most important thing I need people to know? Saying it accurately doesn’t mean saying it all. It took many years (and likely many degrees!) to learn everything you know about your subject; there’s no way you can bring us all up to speed. Think about the one or two most important things your audience needs to understand, and focus on communicating those points.

No jargon. Your audience isn’t stupid. We’re just not experts in your field, so we’re not fluent in the technical language you rely on with other experts. Think of the simplest words you can use to explain the concept you’re after. Remember, using technical terms is like speaking a language your audience doesn’t know—no matter how hard we try, we can’t understand you unless you speak our language.

Put your information into context using stories and metaphors we can relate to. Research suggests that we don’t make our decisions based on facts, even though we might think we do. Our values and emotions are more important to our decision-making. So connecting your issues to stories and using metaphors we understand helps us relate, and gives you a better shot at persuading us to act.

These techniques make it easy to stay accessible without compromising on accuracy. When you do, you help make sure the real experts are the ones called upon by journalists to educate the public.

“This is a truly transformative program and there is no question that it is preparing leaders to be courageous communicators.”

- Colleen Bailey, Executive Director, The National Steinbeck Center

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