Friday, April 11, 2008

Know your audience

"I don't care what you said, I understood you to mean . . . "

"Tell them what you are going to tell them; tell them, then tell them what you told them."

"Why can't the English learn to speak . . . the language?"

Confession: I came to Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) - also known as Business Continuity (BC) and, in "FedSpeak," as Continuation Of OPerations (COOP) - after many years as an honest newspaper reporter/editor, PR "practitioner" ("flack"), and writer of commercial and military technical manuals for things which, if documented in a way open to "interpretation" could cause injury or death to someone.

Because of this background, and because I work with people who have English as a second language, I understand that it is my duty to assure my audience understands what I am writing or saying. It is not the audience's task to try to understand my words.

Obviously, that applies to honest journalism and technical documentation.

It also applies to ERM/BC/COOP deliverables at all stages.

It is a planner's obligation to communicate in terms the planner's audience can comprehend. Period.

A brief lesson I learned from experience. Comprehension has little, if any, relationship to formal education. Try this experiment: Ask a master plumber whose "terminal degree" is a GED to instruct a PhD on how to install a toilet. Have the master plumber use terminology any plumber would understand. My guess is that the PhD will stand there muttering "What did he say?" or, more succinctly, "Huh?"

Granted, a misunderstanding of the Executive Overview probably won't directly endanger lives in the same way an omitted "Turn Off Power Before Touching Wire" might, but it could actually play a role in endangerment. I know it's stretching, but what if an executive reading the Overview feels the plan effort is wasted money and allows the plan to die. Later, an event (risk) occurs which, had the plan been implemented, might have been avoided or mitigated. Because the plan never was completed, someone was hurt - physically or financially.

As with most professions and trades, ERM/BC/COOP is replete with acronyms, buzz words, techno-babble, and other esoteric jargon: RTO, MAD, BIA. The Disaster Recovery Institute International (DRII) has a 16-page glossary posted on its Web site (

I've been in the business for more than a dozen years and some of the abbreviations and terms confuse me - imagine the confusion they will cause non-planners, the people who fund and execute the plans. (Am I alone? Hardly. A Business Continuity list recently had a lengthy thread about one phrase's definition. As I recall, in the end the issue remained unsettled.)

Don't think that just because someone speaks the same language, e.g., English, that it really is the same language. American English is different from British English in more than spelling.

Take the verb "table" as an example. In US English, to table an issue means to put it aside - think "put it under the table." In British English, to table an issue means to discuss it, to "put it on the table."

The bottom line for the planner, indeed anyone addressing an audience of people outside the speaker's or writer's area of expertise, is to speak and write in terms the audience understands. It may mean extra work for the planner to "translate" planner terms to audience terms, and it may take extra time to clarify something, but the effort is required.

Planners, this scrivener included, are well advised to purge buzz words and techno-babble from their vocabulary and to communicate in a mutually understood language.

John Glenn, MBCI, SRP
Enterprise Risk Management/Business Continuity
Planner @

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