Crystal clear communication?

25th April 2012

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Make sure your important messages aren't lost in translation. IEMA Associate David Dowson offers some simple rules on communicating environment management information

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.”

Donald Rumsfeld famously made this speech regarding the Iraq war, and it makes sense if you really think it through. The problem is, however, that you have to really think it through in order for it to make sense and that no-one will listen because it’s not immediately understandable.

With such a contentious issue, there was really too much at stake to risk the message being misreported.

What Rumsfeld failed to do was communicate to his target audience simply and concisely. If you do that, your ideas are understood and accepted, fail and you end up having a page on a popular encyclopaedic website dissecting your speech.

As environmentalists, we should learn from Rumsfeld’s mistake. Part of my job with the NHS is trying to change people’s behaviour so they cut their energy use and pollute less. It’s a simple message, but one I had been communicating incorrectly. So I began following a few rules:

  1. Remove the buzzwords and clichés, unless you can easily explain what they are. Words like “sustainability”, “carbon” and “future proof” can be meaningless to non-environmentalists, so make sure you explain what you mean before you use them.
  2. Illustrate and visualise your data.
  3. Narrate your communications so they flow from section to section. If one concepts jars with another it will alienate your reader.
  4. Be selective for your audience and accentuate the positive. If you’re writing something for a financial director, don’t be afraid to talk about the money!
  5. Lastly, but most importantly, don’t waffle!

The result was a new carbon management plan written in such a way that colleagues with no understanding of environment management can pick it up, read it and understand it straightaway. And it has been universally well received.

So, this is a call for other IEMA members and environment professionals to take a step back and simplify your communications. If you want to be successful in any environmental project you need to get your message out there, and not pull a Rumsfeld.

David Dowson, AIEMA, is an environmental officer at Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust


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