Simple words can be more effective

Not long ago a friend of mine went to one of those dreary environmental conferences where they talk about how polluted the Chesapeake Bay is, but he came back raving about a speaker at the conference.

His name was Eric Eckl, and his topic was "Water Words That Work." Mr. Eckl is an environmentalist and also a marketing consultant who understands how to persuade people.

He said that scientists, government officials and his fellow environmentalists too often bury their message under piles of professional jargon, mushy buzzwords, arcane terminology and opaque acronyms.

Their environmental messages fail to get through because in many cases people don't know what they are talking about and therefore don't care. Mr. Eckl is absolutely right.

When I hear terms like "wetlands restoration," "fossil fuels dependence," "dissolved oxygen," or "biodiversity," my eyes glaze over and my ears close up.

As soon as earnest environmentalists or bloviating bureaucrats utter something like "We need to control watershed discharges and tertiary wastewater treatment infrastructures in order to protect urban tree canopies and other wildlife habitats," my interest level falls off fast.

If they want us to back waterway pollution controls, according to Mr. Eckl, then they should say so in plain English. Don't babble on about "impervious surfaces" and "sedimentary effluvia."

He told the conference attendees that there are some environmental words that work:

"Healthy skies and healthy forests," for instance, and "make a difference" and "enough clean water for everybody." People can relate to simple, clear terms like that.

The environmental movement in this country has been geared up for about 30 years now, more than enough time for people in it to develop their own intricate, specialized language. Many have built entire careers around studying pollution and ways to curb it.

What has happened to them, though, is that they have gradually developed a tin ear for how they sound to the rest of us.

They no longer have any idea of how to communicate effectively with the public.

I will always respond positively to someone who asks me to help "Save the Bay."

I'm likely to fall asleep, however, if they want me to "assist in the reduction of nitrogen levels and restoration of submerged aquatic vegetation."

Published April 16, 2007, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

(Revised April 2007)