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Clumsy use of words destroys clarity

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

The confusion this week over the meaning of ‘elimination’ shows how critical words are to persuasion.

Under pressure and stress, what might have seemed an unambiguous goal turned out to mean different things.

Phrases like ‘lockdown’, ‘bubble’, ‘contact trace’ and even ‘two metres’ have become common language. A readiness to adopt new phrases forces those who supply them to explain what these words mean in application.

This is critically important to effective communication. You cannot assume your audience understands things in the way you do. It is far easier to persuade when you use words or phrases as they are understood by the audience.

Elimination is something people would have felt they understood, so didn’t bother asking for its meaning when it was first coined. But few are epidemiologists who would understand that elimination has a different application in public health.

People interpret words a little differently if it suits a personal need or serves as justification for a particular action.  If New Zealanders were wanting information on what they needed to do to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading, they would’ve been sufficiently motivated to understand a new meaning for elimination.

The window for framing interpretation of ‘elimination’, was at the first communication. Not weeks after the fact, and when people have already applied what that word means to their day-to-day lives under Lockdown.

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