I once knew a guy who couldn’t smell. Anything. At all. And because scent is invisible, his inability to detect it was also invisible. So despite the fact that his cologne could overpower an entire room, I often forgot his perspective. I created countless awkward moments by suggesting that he smell food, flowers, or crayons. (Our group of friends colored for stress relief during exams.) With a here-we-go-again tone, he always reminded me, “I can’t smell. Anything. At all.”
Literacy is kind of like having a sense of smell. How well a person can read is invisible at first glance, and most of us assume that everyone we know can do it. It’s a common mistake, but that assumption has consequences for community advocates’ work. When developing relationships with residents, we may unintentionally create participation barriers for people with lower reading skills. (It is estimated that more than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read or write above a third grade level. ) Add in a dash of professional jargon, and it’s a recipe for excluding community members’ voices.
At Active Living By Design (ALBD), we also face this challenge. We are constantly learning how to connect more authentically with residents, regularly asking how we can improve our communications. Here are a couple of things I’ve been thinking about lately:
While working on a recent draft, a colleague and I wrote something we liked. It was friendly, enthusiastic, and accurately captured the nuances of ALBD’s work. With literacy in mind, we ran Microsoft Word’s readability check. It suggested ways to reduce the reading level, like using shorter sentences and simpler words—obviously good advice. We followed the suggestions throughout the draft and let it sit for a couple of days. After pausing to reflect on it, however, we realized that our new draft sounded robotic and didn’t articulate our thoughts as clearly as it had before. It was more accessible to more people, but less compelling.
At ALBD, we embrace “both/and thinking,” so I wasn’t satisfied with the idea that our draft had to be either compelling or accessible, at one end of the readability spectrum or the other. We found ways to simplify the language while letting our personality shine. As you look across your organization’s writing, consider:
During Monday team meetings when I first joined ALBD, I often had no idea what anyone was talking about. What was a CHA? A CHW? Was NACCHO an organization, or were we talking about lunch? Luckily, that lack of knowledge helped me easily spot jargon and clarify it. (For the record, these acronyms stand for community health assessment, community health worker, and the National Association of County and City Health Officials.)
With almost three years of experience in this field, I’ve now lost some of my jargon-busting superpowers. I am struggling with what Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, calls the Curse of Knowledge—the inability to imagine what it’s like for others not to know something once you know it yourself. He suggests that this is the primary reason professional writing has so much jargon: we can’t tell what jargon is and isn’t, and the more we know, the less we can tell.
To address this in your organization’s writing, identify a colleague, family member, or friend outside of your field who is willing to review your communications. Think about other ways to check your writing, too. Is there someone who is learning to read English, like a young person or a non-native English speaker, who could point out areas needing clarity or offer a valuable perspective where you may have gaps?
As with any relationship, authentic community engagement—and the mindful communication it requires—takes ongoing work. You may weed out jargon only to find it creeping back in a month later. You may master the art of sentence-level simplicity only to find yourself reverting to long-windedness as soon as you cover a more complex topic. And that’s okay. We all need reminders from time to time.
 Figure from ProLiteracy’s Adult Literacy Fact Sheet.