Association of State Wetland Managers - Protecting the Nation's Wetlands.

The Compleat Wetlander: Communicate in Plain Language to Build Support for Wetlands

Anyone who has raised a child is well aware that the message delivered is not always the message received.  Kids let you know pretty quickly when communication has somehow gone wrong.  Adults don’t.

I remember a story I heard many years ago about a river clean-up.  A formal presentation was made at a community meeting describing the improvements in dissolved oxygen levels (DO) in the river.  It was received with polite applause.  Then a local trapper stood up in the back and said “I know the river’s cleaner because I’m catching more muskrat and beaver than I have in my whole life.”  His remarks were received with enthusiastic applause.  The reason: he was understandable.   The audience didn’t know squat about dissolved oxygen.  The trapper probably didn’t either but he knew that ecosystem health was improving even if he didn’t use that terminology.  He was also ahead of the times by focusing on biotic health rather than numeric criteria.   Most important, he shared his knowledge in a language that everybody could understand.

When words make knowledge inaccessible there is a problem.

Communication is tough.   When experts try to communicate to nonexperts, they may fail because there is a terminology gap.  Experts develop terms that are actually shorthand for concepts that could easily be explained in plain English, only it would take 10-20 minutes. So when the expert community understands a concept, a new term is created to move the discussion forward.  Nonexperts are left behind.  Techno speak is everywhere.  The acronyms are even more confusing.  It’s common to receive e-mails and visit webpages where only the acronmym for an organization is used.  Now there are even embedded acronyms—an acronym within an acronym.

The first step rule in developing a successful communication strategy is to use words that everyone can understand. The website developed by environmental communications consultant Eric Eckl for Water Words That Work provides some first-rate advice: Swap the Shoptalk: http://waterwordsthatwork.com/the-method/words-that-dont/ and Use words that work: http://waterwordsthatwork.com/the-method/words/ and on the main page at http://waterwordsthatwork.com/

Another resource is an excellent paper on communicating about conservation by David Metz of Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin Metz and Associates, which provides recommendations on successful communication about conservation issues. http://www.habitatresourcenetwork.org/files/220-2749_Language_of_Conservation_-_Final__282_29.pdf

Nowadays videos, podcasts and webinars can be done with a small budget and are also effective tools for communication.

Skip Stiles, Executive Director of Wetlands Watch, recently did a webinar hosted by the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy about the work his organization is doing with coastal communities in Virginia to persuade them to prepare for sea level rise.  He provides some great analysis of the problem, but more importantly shares how their communication strategy focuses on helping people understand they are already experiencing sea level rise.  The webinar is posted on the Clean Energy webinar archive: “02/11 Adaptation: Doing it Now with the Tools we Have” http://www.cleanenergy.org/index.php?/Webinar-Archive.html

A dramatic demonstration of the benefits of owning a house built to code in a hurricane is demonstrated in a video of two houses that are exposed to hurricane winds at
http://fl.stormsmartcoasts.org/2010/10/27/quick-proof-that-building-codes-work-video/

Ultimately the goal of successful communication is to make information accessible so that people can make informed decisions about wetlands and other aquatic resources.

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One Response to The Compleat Wetlander: Communicate in Plain Language to Build Support for Wetlands

  1. Although I am currently blogging on my personal interests, I will soon be blogging regularly for a friend who is starting up a business related to wetlands, flooding, and remediation. I spent several years in land use planning, but that was quite a number of years ago. Blog posts like this one will be highly valuable to me as I climb back into the environmental saddle. Thank you!

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