Simplify Your Words


Your organization is pitching a story that is technical. You have to sort through a maze of documents and reports written by academics and scientists in order to create a cohesive, easy-to-understand story pitch or press release. How do you simplify technical terms, language and data so that it is understood by your target audience?



An eighth grade reading level is the readability standard used by many newspapers today. Consider simplifying your language and your data in order to get your ideas communicated as effectively as possible. Don’t worry about impressing reporters with technical terms, sophisticated language or hard to digest data. Simplify your ideas so they resonate with your target audience. (Remember the famous line spoken so eloquently by James Carville,” It’s the economy stupid.” And Bill Clinton won the election on that issue.


Pare it down

Environmental organizations often have to deal with complicated reports, studies, and findings. But just because a story is complicated in its details doesn’t mean that it can’t be pitched as an accessible public health or human interest story. Once you receive an original report, you will be tempted to use its language in pitching the story. Don’t. Even though it’s more work, read it through, and rewrite it, replacing longer words with simpler ones. Opportunity could be chance. Regulation could be rule. Educate could be teach. Several changes like this will make a difference in the accessibility of your final document.


But Elaborate When Necessary

Even though an acronym may be common usage to you, don’t expect the public to know what you mean when you say “NOAA,” “BLM,” or “ACLU.” In written work, refer to the full name of the organization first, and then call it “the bureau” or, “the commission” later on. Using an acronym in your speech will almost guarantee that your statement will not be utilized.


Tools of the Trade

Microsoft Word, in addition to their well-known spelling and grammar functions, also offers a readability meter that measures the reading grade level your document. John Lamson of MacWilliams, Robinson and Partners use this tool when writing speeches for political candidates. With the large and diverse audiences that political candidates must target, they have to make sure they are not using grandiose words or speaking in very long sentences. Politicians speak simply to reach large amounts of people. The media operates this way too. The extra step of checking reading grade level ensures the absorption of the most necessary information.


Speaking for Short Attention Spans

Spokespeople, especially experts in their field, tend to be pretty detailed when explaining an issue. But television and radio editors are always looking for the perfect sound byte—short, sweet, and to the point. Try training your spokespeople to speak in shorter sentences, use more familiar terminology, and be aware of who their audience is—someone who is probably not educated on the technical details or legal history of a particular issue.


Getting the Most out of Reporter’s Time

Reporters have very little time when they’re on deadline. If you are pitching a story to them, they want to know what you have to offer right away. A story pitch should have clear and concise language, and give the basics that a reporter needs to know to make a decision. Give them the basics, but let them know they should contact you for further details.



Click on this link to find out how to check the reading grade level of something you’ve written in Microsoft Word.


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July 2004