Book review: Supercommunicator: Explaining the Complicated So Anyone Can Understand

supercommunicator_1Frank J. Pietrucha is a communications specialist whose company, Definitive Communications, specializes in making highly technical topics accessible and meaningful to different audiences. It counts among its clients the International Intellectual Property Institute and NASA’s Ames Research Center. Pietrucha’s book, Supercommunicator, was published by AMACOM, the book-publishing division of the American Management Association, and I was curious to see whether his advice to managers would jibe with the clear communication principles that plain language specialists are familiar with.

It does, for the most part, and Pietrucha is clear about the motivation for his book: “Every day great ideas fall by the wayside because they weren’t properly explained. To be successful in an increasingly competitive marketplace, you need to articulate a clear and easy-to-understand message to all relevant parties. Financiers, management, stockholders, board members, regulators, clients, analysts, and employees all demand clarity from you—and these days, business people don’t have the interest or patience to wade through ineffective communications.” (p. 5)

Pietrucha practises what he preaches, offering readers short, digestible chunks of information and advice in a conversational tone. The 230 pages of text are divided into nine parts—including “How digital technology is changing communication,” “Know thy audience,” and “Simplicity and clarity”—each with one to six brief chapters, so the book is a quick, unintimidating read. There’s a lot to like in this book:

It looks at more than one way to deliver a message

Pietrucha tackles not only written communication but also offers advice about how to give effective presentations. The goal of communicating in whatever form, he says, is not simply to give your audience information but to bring them meaning. Those of us who work in editing or in plain language likely focus a disproportionate amount of our energy on achieving comprehension and could learn a thing or two about how best to achieve persuasion; Supercommunicator deftly bridges that divide with solid tips about how to get your audience to care, by using storytelling, examples, and analogies to anchor the new information to their own experiences.

Throughout the book Pietrucha also highlights the importance of getting comfortable with digital media, which can offer new ways of reaching people, from videos that enhance a text to interactive infographics and data visualizations. He supports his advice with research from authoritative sources, including developmental molecular biologist John Medina, who, in establishing that “vision is our most dominant sense,” (p. 193) argues for the primacy of images over text, as well as Finnish researchers Kristian Kiili and Harri Ketamo, who have found that “Most game-based learning today is being done without significant pedagogical input… Players aren’t usually allowed to actively test their hypotheses and discovery new knowledge with what’s currently available.” (p. 224)

The latter example shows the importance of tempering enthusiasm about new communication technologies with sound judgment. Pietrucha writes, “Caught up in the gee-whiz excitement about digital tools, many of us forgot that good communication means bringing insight to an audience, not glitz. The widespread availability of graphics programs has opened a Pandora’s Box of visual stimuli, but much of what’s in there has been meaningless adornment.” (p. 205)

In short, become familiar with what technology can offer, but use it with care.

Supercommunicator advocates for an understanding of, and compassion for, your audience

Plain language folks know that audience is paramount, and Pietrucha is unequivocal about the importance learning as much as you can about what your audience does and doesn’t know when planning your communications:

Research is essential to understand your audience’s level of cultural awareness. The Internet has made the world a smaller place by making it easier for people to connect. This is great—but it also means we need to consider that not everyone who will view our web pages or see our videos will comprehend certain references. There are cultural traits we need to think about if our audience comes from a different part of the country or different country altogether. In the digital age, communicators need to be more sensitive to the fact that their audiences may approach their content from a completely different viewpoint. (pp. 72–73)

The onus, emphasizes Pietrucha throughout the book, is on the sender, not the receiver, to ensure the message gets through.

The book gives guidelines, not rules

As much as our jobs would be easier if we adhered to a black-and-white set of rules, effective communicators need to be flexible and exercise judgement. Writes Pietrucha:

Ideally, most of my suggestions would be embraced by a world ready to communicate complicated content more effectively. But in actuality, some organizations cling to the formality and stilted ways of yesteryears. Your judgment is necessary to determine the applicability of content in this book to your situation. It may be worthwhile for you to be a maverick and forge a new communication style for your company—yet, if you go too far it could mean professional trouble. (p. 6)

In some academic circles, for example, you may have to stick with third-person pronouns and the passive voice to have your communications taken seriously. Fortunately, even in academia the tide may be turning, according to Pietrucha:

Penn State University Professor Joe Schall did an informal survey of forty journals pulled from his university’s technical library to see if the authors of serious academic articles dared tread into the less formal territory of first person. He checked a range of less-than-blockbuster journals such as European Journal of Mineralogy, Spray Technology and Marketing, and Water Resources Journal and came up with some surprising results. He discovered that in thirty-two of the forty journals he surveyed, the authors “made liberal use of ‘I’ and ‘we’.” Schall concludes that the principle of third-person-only is either outdated or is in flux. (pp. 153–154)

Other “rules,” such as using short words and short sentences, can make for monotonous reading if unthinkingly applied. Judiciously bending or breaking those rules adds colour to communications and helps keeps audiences engaged.

The author is eminently quotable

For me, reading this book was a bit like being at a pep rally. Although most of the information wasn’t new to me, I still found myself nodding in agreement and busily transcribing passage after passage for quoting. Sometimes, in crafting an argument, you just need a pithy quote from a supportive source, and I’ll have Supercommunicator in my back pocket for just those occasions. I won’t overwhelm you with the 3,900 words I took down, but here are a few I’ll probably find some forum repeat:

Nothing kills good ideas like poorly written text. You could have found the cure for cancer or an alternative power source, but if you can’t articulate your concept clearly and intelligibly, you’re going to have a much harder time getting people to believe your claim. (p. 102)

In our rush to get more information quickly, we have less tolerance for roadblocks that prevent us from getting to the meat of the matter. “Don’t slow me down with big vocabulary words,” or “Don’t use jargon that only geeks can understand,” is the prevalent feeling among today’s digital citizens. (p. 102)

Elaborate words are ineffective if your audience is thinking more about your vocabulary than what you have to say. (p. 112)

Jargon makes people feel excluded. Communicating the complicated is about inclusivity, not exclusivity. (p. 112–113)

***

Supercommunicator is a quick, affirming read for the plain language specialist, but it could have been much stronger in a few important ways:

Whither the editor?

Pietrucha acknowledges that today’s multimedia communications can be complex affairs that take teams of people—including data visualization specialists, graphic designers, and programmers—to put together. The author even writes:

Make it error free

This is basic communication 101. Errors turn people off. Even if you are a neuroscience genius, you can’t expect your audience to appreciate your thoughts if they’re presented with error-filled content. Errors can destroy your credibility, no matter how smart you are. Use your spell and grammar check programs, but look out for other problems your personal computer may not catch. Work with a colleague to help you clean up your act. (p. 117)

As an editor, I’m always attuned to opportunities to promote the profession, and, consciously or not, Pietrucha missed a big one here. Why “work with a colleague” when professional language specialists can help you polish your text to high standards? Communications teams should always include an editor.

How do you know your communications work?

Although Supercommunicator devotes a section to getting to know your audience, it doesn’t mention user testing and revision as vital components of the clear communication process. It’s misleading to suggest—and naive to believe—that once you’ve done your audience research your communications will automatically be effective.

In a similar vein, learning from your mistakes and refining your communications are implied in the book but not made as explicit as they should be. Becoming an excellent communicator takes practice, and what I think would make this book more useful as a reference is a companion volume that features more before-and-after examples, as well as exercises to hone the communication skills that the book endorses.

Don’t neglect the index!

Nothing kills the potential for a book to become a time-tested reference like a weak index. Whether because of budget, time, or space constraints, this book’s index doesn’t do justice to its contents and will make it harder for a reader to look up specific topics. (Why isn’t there a cross-reference between “infographics” and “graphics”? And why isn’t “respect for audience” double-posted under “audience”?)

No, this book isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have stretched its usefulness and probably increased its readership if it had not only a better index but also more consistently structured chapters. As it stands, the chapters aren’t even organized in a similar way within each major part, which makes it harder for a reader to navigate the book and find the information they need.

***

Supercommunicator is a great primer or refresher—and I don’t hesitate to recommend it—but a lack of rigour in its organization and shortcomings in its index prevent it from being the indispensable reference it could be. Will it help you become a more effective writer and presenter? Possibly—but certainly not without practice.

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