Don’t Let Your Great Work Be Misunderstood
When Emerson wrote, “To be great is to be misunderstood”, I doubt he was referring to how we talk about the important issues of our times.
Yet to listen to certain political speeches, read issue briefs, reports or fundraising appeals might suggest otherwise. They are often packed with jargon, statistics and describe the work of institutions. They literally require an advanced degree to understand.
We often lament that many Americans don’t seem to understand either the severity of our issues or the effectiveness of proven solutions. But are we taking a hard look in the mirror to understand why?
It has become fashionable to simply place the blame on the audience’s failing (e.g. they are ignorant or gullible) or our opposition’s tactics (e.g. they lie and leak, or spread fake news). But are we taking responsibility for our role as authors (e.g. our messages are hard to understand and difficult to relate to)?
Conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, said it best (and simply): “It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.” And right now, too many Americans aren’t hearing some important messages.
Consider three of the most revered and effective political speeches in our country’s history: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and JFK’s inaugural address.
· Each uses clear concrete terms — very little jargon.
· There are almost no numbers or wonky facts to be found.
· Each includes a significant proportion of conditional phrases that leave the listener or reader feeling connected and hopeful.
· None requires even a high school diploma to understand.
We know this because we analyzed each speech with a new tool we created called VIOOLY.
It was developed with grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the New Venture Fund to address misperceptions about the impact of foreign aid and development.
Quite simply it acts like a spell check, but instead of checking for misspelled words, it looks for what in your writing might be getting in the way of people understanding and engaging in your cause.
Let me first state the obvious. We know writing is clearly an art, but research-based tools, like VIOOLY, can still help inform the process.
And that is exactly the role technology should play to augment our craft.
Over the last several years, there has been a tremendous amount of research telling us what works and what doesn’t in the art of persuasive writing. The fields of communications science, linguistics and neuroscience have been rich with insights on how best to engage people on the critical issues of our times.
The application of this learning has been spotty at best and some suggest that this just results in a “dumbing down” of our messages.
But no one ever accused, King, Kennedy or Lincoln of dumbing down anything. Contrary to Emerson, they were great BECAUSE they were understood.
Our toolbox is overflowing with promising ways to reach people. Post on social media, micro target with precision, sign an online petition, mobilize for a march, phone bank from your home.
Most of these tools are about where to reach people, but don’t teach us enough about how to really connect with them.
Tools, like VIOOLY, allow you to hold a mirror up to your writing to see if people will understand it, connect with it and have confidence in the change you’re promising — before you put it out into the world.
Contrary to what we read in the papers everyday, we are making strides in improving the lives of others, across a number of different issues. But our messages of success aren’t getting through to Americans at large.
The number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut in half over the last decade. The education gap in the US is starting to narrow and childhood obesity rates are declining. Yet when asked, many people don’t see the value in government interventions or don’t understand the extent to which progress is being made in the social sector.
As the recent election showed, the ability to connect with a simple and compelling message is absolutely essential.
If people honestly want to “Make America Great Again”, we need to be crystal clear on what actually contributes to our greatness. It starts with understanding.