I am not an urban planner. I am not an engineer. I am a communicator.
What I do is work with planners, engineers, and a variety of other stakeholders, to communicate their work to the public. But I must admit, sometimes I haven’t the slightest notion what they’re talking about.
You might be thinking that any communicator worth their salt should be able to speak their client’s language, and you’re right. This is why I’m here – to take large, technical, abstract, jargon-loaded projects, and communicate them to the general public. An audience who – like me – aren’t planners or engineers.
The question is: How do you translate a 500 page Municipal Class Environmental Assessment (EA), into a language the audience will understand? Why should you even try?
My colleague, Andrzej, recently discussed some of the barriers to public engagement in the planning process. He spoke of the difficulty of reaching the audience with a standard public meeting notice. These notices are usually poorly designed and difficult to read. They’re tucked so deeply into most newspapers, that the average reader may miss them. If, for example, a birthday party invitation (colour! hardly any text! gratuitous exclamation points!) is held as the epitome of a stylistic call-to-arms, then the public meeting notice is its second cousin, thrice removed.
Shouldn’t we be just as excited about being part of a process that will shape the future of our community? Shouldn’t we be encouraging collaboration that will build healthy, economically viable cities? Community participation is vital to planning, people!
But drop a 500 page document on a friend’s lap, and ask if they want to discuss it. I dare you. This is where we, as communications professionals, need to stage an intervention. We aren’t planners or engineers, and we shouldn’t be. We need to think like our audience; to take the important, necessary work of other professionals, and distil it into something meaningful to them.
Here are a few rules that I use to make sure my client’s work doesn’t get lost in translation:
In my last post, I spoke about the importance of messaging that relates to the audience on a personal level. The power of the personal can’t be understated. If I want to invite community members to a public meeting I need to be very clear about what’s in it for them. Are we saving them money? Are we making their life easier? Are we giving them something new? Make sure the “what’s in it for me” is clearly articulated.
Use bold visuals
Why do marketers use so many pictures when designing advertisements? Because we are visual creatures. Why should “selling” people on the importance of an infrastructure project be any different? Large numbers, jargon and abstract facts and statistics are difficult for most people to understand in a meaningful way. What does 400 million disposable coffee cups looks like? What does 500 megawatts of energy mean? The adage is true – a picture is worth a thousand words.
Less talk, more action
That’s a staggering statistic. What can I do to help?
Without providing tangible ways to help solve large issues, statistics and information alone can cause people to walk away from a problem feeling overwhelmed. We want to empower people with our communications. Make sure that you give them something to do. Be clear about “the ask”, outline next steps and incorporate advocacy if you want to foster public participation in your planning project.
You may not work with planners or engineers, but it’s likely that you need to relay technical information to your audience. What are some of your tips for ensuring that your client’s work doesn’t get lost in translation?
Bryna Jones is the Director of Communications at Hardy Stevenson and Associates Limited, and a member of the International Association of Business Communicators. Bryna’s project experience includes communications and marketing planning, advocacy campaign development, social media strategy, government relations, and project management. She also has considerable experience in copy writing and public speaking.