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Word Matters: Appreciating Pope Francis’s Way with Words

Last month I had the privilege of seeing Pope Francis in person. I was among the nearly 1 million people who lined the Ben Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia when he passed by in the popemobile — only 20 feet away. I was near enough to see his broad smile and feel the warmth of his presence, which radiates joy and peace.
While I have some points of disagreement with Pope Francis, I am in accord with many of his teachings — especially his overarching plea to preserve the life and dignity of all people, whatever their station or circumstance in life. I also like his focus on the poor and marginalized. (Can you see why I love working in Family Development?)

Now, Pope Francis isn't saying anything that past popes haven't said. Yet, his words resonate more than those of previous pope's — with me and millions of people worldwide, both Catholic and non-Catholic, Christian and non-Christian. Why?

The fact that he "walks the talk" is a big reason for his popularity. He doesn't just say "love your neighbor as yourself," he shows that love through numerous actions that reflect his priorities and his sense of humility. But there's another reason I believe people find this pope appealing — his ability to speak in "everyday" terms and language.

While in Philadelphia, I read a column by Rick Hampson in USA Today that nicely described Pope Francis's communication style. Hampson notes that, whereas this pope's predecessors, John Paul and Benedict XVI, often directed their remarks to fellow theologians or seminarians, Francis speaks to ordinary people living in "the physical world where facts rule." Thus, Hampson says, "not for him the scholarly distinction or the convoluted phrase; instead, we get — when asked about gay Catholics — 'Who am I to judge?'"

A pontiff who is plainspoken, pointed and provocative.
Photo credit: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY

I think we all can learn a great deal from Pope Francis about a great many things. But because this column's focus is communication, I'll stick to one thought: If, like Pope Francis, we want to connect with our external audiences — in our case, our partners and the people we strive to serve — we need to write and speak in clear and simple (but not simple-minded) language. Achieving clarity in communications has many dimensions, one of which requires leaving jargon, buzzwords, and technical terms at the workplace. Or, if you must use "inside" terms, explain them in first reference. Achieving clarity also requires stepping into your audience members' shoes and speaking to them, instead of your peers.

So for example, instead of writing "food insecurity," write "hunger." Instead of saying "build capacity," say something like "develop skills and resources to strengthen your organization" or "your community." Instead of talking about the dangers of looking at participants "from a deficit perspective," say "don't have low expectations of your students."

As for terms like "spectrum of prevention" or "policy, systems, and environment," avoid them altogether with some external audiences — and substitute plain, simple explanations. Or if a situation absolutely requires use of scholarly terms, describe them in ways your audience can relate to before using them again.

To double-check whether you're getting through to your audience, read your article or script to someone unfamiliar with your field or work, and check for understanding. When interacting face to face with audience members, ask open-ended questions about whether anything is confusing to them and be open to feedback.

If we, like Pope Francis, want to work with people as co-creators of change, i.e., not just dictate change to them, clarity of communication is a must — both in writing and speaking. Otherwise, we won't make the connections that forge the relationships that are the foundation of our work in the physical world where facts indeed rule.

Mary Vitcenda
Senior Editor

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