PeopleA few years back I worked a public meeting for a transit project in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood. A colleague of mine told a group of residents that the project would improve bus headways in their neighborhood. A confused person interrupted and asked “what is a headway?” Transportation planners use this term everyday, but to the person in the audience, it was a foreign concept. The planner explained that it’s the amount of time between buses arriving at the station. Like the person in the audience, I also sometimes get confused by planner-speak…and I’m trained as a planner! Of course, jargon and complex concepts are found in all professions. But I argue that planners must pay special attention to how they are communicating and understand the implications for poorly constructed messages. In my mind, the reason is simple. We have an ethical responsibility to serve the public interest. But very few residents of the communities we work in are familiar with planning concepts and jargon. We must keep this in mind if we are to serve the public effectively.

I don’t want this to come across as preachy. I struggle mightily to limit my use of jargon and communicate concepts clearly. I guess we all get so used to talking to each other that sometimes we forget to turn off the planner-speak and use plain language. But we must keep this in mind and find ways to be clearer. After all, the AICP Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct states that “we shall provide timely, adequate, clear, and accurate information on planning issues to all affected persons and to government decision makers.”

Fortunately there are many resources that can help us get started. About a year ago I came across an article in the New York Times that I found useful. Helen Sword’s piece, titled “Zombie Nouns,” discusses the importance of avoiding nominalizations in writing. Nominalizations are nouns formed from other parts of speech, such as adjectives and verbs, by adding a suffix such as “ity” or “ion.” Planning is filled with these words, like connectivity, visualization, and multimodalism. The author calls these words “zombie nouns” because they suck the life out of writing and put people to sleep. See her opinion piece here: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/23/zombie-nouns/

This brings me to a few pointers I like to keep as I write for the public:

  • As Sword recommends, use active verbs instead of nominalizations when possible. For example, “connecting streets” will probably resonate better with a planning newcomer than “better connectivity.”
  • Avoid needless text. Use the fewest words necessary to communicate an idea to the audience.
  • Of course, many planning concepts are complex and it can be difficult to explain them with text alone. This is where storytelling and visual graphics are useful. Storytelling might take the form of an anecdote that illustrates a concept. Meanwhile, visuals can include picture, diagrams, maps, charts, and even videos. Infographics combine all of these elements into a concise message that typically fits onto a single page.
  • Finally, I often employ what I call the spouse test. If my non-planner wife Emily understands what I’m saying, then I’m probably on the right track.

We may not always succeed, but keeping your audience in mind and coming up with new ways to communicate ideas clearly will help more people get involved in planning and understand how planning decisions can affect the quality of our communities.

-- Mike Callahan, Cities that Work Blog

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