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“English Doc, English!” Back to the Future’s hidden lesson in Media communications

In one of the most famous movie franchises of all time, Back to the Future,  2015 is the year Marty McFly travels to from his ‘native’ 1985. As we’ve approached the real-life 2015 there’s been no end of articles analysing what the movie’s producers got right and wrong when, in the mid 1980s, they imagined a world 30 years into the future. It’s a mixed bag of success. Flying cars and self-drying clothes haven’t happened, although skype and, more remarkably, hoverboards have.

But one thing that hasn’t really changed in all that time is most people with any expertise’s inability to not speak in jargon filled language when communicating to a new audience. Especially when using a blog, the TV, the radio or a newspaper interview to promote a business, a cause or themselves, it’s still a small minority of people who naturally cut out the jargon and technical language of their daily lives. We all use business-speak as a kind of shorthand at work, or to try and make ourselves look clever when we’re not at work, but when it comes to dealing with the media it really doesn’t do us any favours at all.

In Back to the Future one of the recurring motifs was madcap scientist Doc Brown talking to the teenager Marty McFly in fast, complicated language that Marty  couldn’t understand. Marty would typically respond with the exasperation ‘English Doc!’ – by which of course he meant for Doc Brown to speak in clearer language. Realising his mistake, Doc Brown would then break down the problem in a way that Marty, and by extension us (the audience) could grasp.  Here’s an example from the script of Back to the Future II:

Doc Brown: Obviously the time continuum has been disrupted, creating a new temporal event sequence resulting in this alternate reality.

Marty: English, Doc!

Doc Brown: Here. Here, let me demonstrate. Let’s say that this line represents time. [draws straight line and points to places] Here’s the present 1985, the future and the past. Obviously, somewhere in the past the timeline skewed down into this tangent [draws new line and writes 1985A] creating an alternate 1985. Alternate to you, me, and Einstein, but reality for everyone else.

You have to have the argument between your inner Doc Brown and your inner Marty McFly before you communicate via the media, in order to speak a language that everyone can understand.

Never think that by speaking in language that an intelligent, but unknowlegeable teenager like Marty can understand you are dumbing down. In fact you are doing just the opposite. Communicating a complicated concept in clear plain English shows a level of communications-intelligence that only a tiny minority of people have truly mastered. Think about all the distractions that we face when we’re watching TV in the evening. There’s the temptation of checking your smart-phone, your partner asking you if you’ve seen their keys, the smell of dinner, not to mention all the other channels that are only a flick of a button away. If you speak in language that your audience isn’t going to immediately understand, something else will grab your audience’s attention and you’ve lost your invaluable opportunity to get your message to them.

Speaking in clear language that people can understand is a skill that takes practice and imagination. But it can be learned. A great place to start is, before you speak to the media, think like Marty McFly and say to yourself: ‘English Doc!, English’.

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