Communicating Facts

Norman Schultz

June 2003

Can You Put That Into Plain Language?

The world we live in is becoming increasingly complex. We have all at one time or another been exposed to information that was "over our heads," utilizing unintelligible jargon, unfamiliar concepts, obtuse wording, or complicated technical data. Examples of this kind of information are readily available in academic or scientific journals, technical manuals, textbooks, and legal documents. This complexity can be overwhelming; the huge success of the "... For Dummies" series of books attests to the need for alternatives.

In addition to being generally frustrating, complex information presents particular challenges in conflict situations. Conflicts involving factual issues cannot be successfully addressed without some type of factual communication process. Factual communication may be between fact-finders and decision-makers, or part of the internal processes of a fact-finding venture (especially in Joint Fact-Finding), or from decision-makers to the public. In any of these contexts, communicating the facts so that they are understood is of the utmost importance. Doing so can be a real challenge, especially when facts relevant to the conflict are technically complex.

Properly understanding the facts is vital to choosing a position. For example, a pharmaceutical company might sell a drug that, according to scientific research, is associated with a 10-4 (1 in 10,000) risk of heart failure. Doctors and scientists are familiar with treatment risks, and are in a better position to evaluate whether or not the risk is worth taking by a particular patient. However, the user may not be able to understand the probability of the risk and how it compares with alternative choices. This dichotomy can lead to misconceptions about the drug. For instance, some members of the public might think that it is scandalous if 85 cases of heart failure are reported among users of this drug. Yet, to evaluate that number, one must consider several factors, such as how many people use the drug, the risks involved in not taking it, and the risks of alternative courses of treatment.

Technical Translating

Frank Blechman talks about the methods he used to facilitate a negotiation among technicians.

Hasty judgments and uninformed bias can be lessened through efforts to inform those without technical expertise. The challenge is that people with little or no expertise and familiarity in a particular field must comprehend the relevant facts sufficiently to make thoughtful decisions. When conflicts involve complex technical issues, experts are often brought in. But employing qualified technical experts is not enough -- these experts must be able to explain the technical issues in terms that non-experts can understand, since it is the non-experts...the politicians and/or the public that will most likely be making the decisions.

For example, in the February 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell made a highly publicized presentation to the United Nations regarding Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. In it, Powell acted as a factual mediator between the highly technical intelligence community and the U.N. Security Council (and ultimately also the public). Although subsequent events called parts of his report into question, American newsmagazine Newsweek reported, "For his part, Powell was keen to triple-rivet the accuracy of his claims and to translate the CIA's intel-speak into normal English."[1] No doubt, Powell was trying to be as clear and as credible to his lay audience as he could possibly be.

There is an enormous amount of information available on practical and theoretical approaches to teaching technically complex material. This is a major focus in educational institutions worldwide, in addition to the academic fields of communication, technical writing, psychology (theories of learning), and the sciences. Yet some key points should be emphasized here in the context of conflicts.

1. The first is that experts may want to prepare some type of technical primer, either in oral or written form. Such primers are designed to bring newcomers "up to speed" on appropriate background information. So, for example, in an environmental conflict it may be necessary to introduce those involved to basic biological, chemical, and ecological principles. Since every sphere of knowledge seems to have its own "lingo," experts will need to pay special attention to giving comprehensible definitions of key terms. This may involve creation of a custom-made glossary, one that includes terms that are crucial to understanding the dispute, while filtering out those that are not relevant or are solely for academic use. When possible, it helps to define terms in the course of presenting ideas, which makes reading the primer less onerous.

2. In explaining more complex technical issues, experts can use two common, but especially effective, teaching techniques: teaching by analogy, and use of familiar concepts. For example, in a conflict involving the production of electrical power, it cannot be taken for granted that all readers understand electricity. Electricians and physicists often use the analogy of water flow as a model for the flow of electricity -- especially successful since things like faucets, drains, and water pressure are quite familiar to most of us. Or, where the language of economists can easily confuse and overwhelm, the analogy of balancing one's checkbook might be used to make complex economic ideas more accessible.

3. Most people live in a state of "information overload," because of the huge amount of information we deal with on a daily basis. There is just too much information streaming into our lives from all directions. To deal with information overload, we tend to either "tune out" to some extent, or interpret that which we do not understand in terms of what we already know. This filtering process can easily lead to misconception and error. With this in mind, the best way for experts to ensure that complex information is properly understood is to present key ideas succinctly and in small, manageable portions, giving only the information that the audience really needs to know. These more compact bits of information can therefore sink in and be comprehended. This can be done in a variety of ways, such as keeping presentations short, utilizing repetition, question-and-answer forums, and written outlines of key points.

4. Experts must communicate in a way that helps build trust. When important decisions -- ones that may affect an individual's vital interests -- are to be made, there is a natural reluctance to accept new information, especially when it contains unfamiliar ideas. Yet a fact-finding effort, if it is successful, will likely mean that some people have to go through the admittance that their previous beliefs were wrong. If decision-makers and stakeholders do not trust experts, then the experts' technical expertise is largely wasted as their recommendations will not be taken to heart. Therefore, experts may need to exercise some diplomacy in order to get their point across.

[1] "Judging the Case," Newsweek, February 17, 2003, 26.

Use the following to cite this article:
Schultz, Norman. "Communicating Facts." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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