How The Weather Channel Flubbed an Important Public Safety Message

By trading familiar language for technical accuracy, The Weather Channel missed an opportunity to inform the people they sought to help.

When the goal is helping others understand an idea, few things matter more than how closely the communication matches the needs of the intended audience. If it works for them, it works.

There are, of course, examples where the intended audience is almost everyone. A great example is public safety messages.

Example: Don’t Drive Through Standing Water

In early October of 2015, parts of South Carolina received about two feet of rain in three days and The Weather Channel, of course, was on point.

One of the big public safety messages during the storm was the dangers of driving through standing water and, to their credit, they produced a TV segment to explain the danger.

Unfortunately, I don’t think they thought enough about their audience’s needs. Let’s consider a couple of important factors:

  • Assumed goal: Save lives. Help people understand WHY it’s dangerous to drive through standing water.
  • Intended audience: Weather channel viewers, particularly in flooding areas.

The segment contained nice graphics, but completely missed the mark on the explanatory side. I’ve included a few screenshots from the segment below, with my notes.

And why does this matter to the audience? Seriously, what does the weight of water have to do with the message?

500 pounds of lateral force! That’s… not useful to many people.

Cars weigh 1,500lbs less because of water displacement! How much does a car weigh anyway?

What Could Have Been Better

I applaud The Weather Channel for producing this, but I think it could have been so much better. Here are the problems I see:

  • Too many technical details: Few viewers are likely to care about the math and physics or how to use them.
  • Complex language: Lateral force. Buoyancy. Water displacement. Momentum. Is this how their audience communicates? Is this familiar language to them?
  • Big ideas are hidden: The big idea here is that cars float and get washed into dangerous situations. That’s it. The danger is that cars float.

The Solution is Simple

I can’t say this enough: the audience and their needs should be the starting point for everything. Explanatory communication should be in a language that is familiar to the target audience. In this case, I believe the audience for the technical language included in the segment is a tiny subset of those they’re trying to reach.

I wonder…Did anyone at The Weather Channel look at the segment and ask the key question: Is this understandable to our audience? I doubt it.

From my perspective, they traded clear communication for technical accuracy and it likely reduced their ability to have more of an impact.

To conclude… The next time there is a flood near you, remember — cars float!

A version of this article was originally published in the newsletter for the forthcoming Explainer Academy, a project of Common Craft. @leelefever is also the author of The Art of Explanation.