Lessons from Museum Exhibit Labels for Union Communications

January 1, 2011

Museums face a profound challenge – explaining potentially very complicated exhibits to diverse audiences that are both accessible and accurate. There is a growing field of study focusing on how to make exhibit labels as effectively as possible without “dumbing down” the information.

Recently I read an interesting article by Jennifer Blunden – Dumbing down for museum audiences–necessity or myth (link to pdf) – that examines this challenge – which I think contains important principles that are more generally useful in good communications.

What other situation attempts to convey information in written, narrative form, intermixed with objects, images and often multimedia, in a relatively non-sequential, three-dimensional space, to an audience that is simultaneously negotiating all kinds of obstacles, browsing and often socialising? However, in many ways also exhibitions share characteristics with other texts which are written by experts but intended for non-specialists — brochures, books, educational materials, websites, multimedia and the like.

Doesn’t that sound like something union communicators have to face all the time?

A challenge constantly facing communications professionals is how to write for an audience that is not necessarily made up of experts in your field. For example, industrial relations for unions is a very specialised field with lots of jargon – and the temptation for unions is to fill leaflets, posters, newsletters and emails with jargon, too much detail and dry information. Similarly, the places where union information is displayed is often mixed up with other material – employer bulletins, old union posters, or in the case of email, 100s of other emails. What’s more, our audience is often under pressure – from their work and life generally – but also from information overload or the physical space.

The tips below are for communicating scholarly information – but could be broadly applicable for any specialised information.

Checklist for creating accessible, scholarly texts

The following checklist summarises strategies that can help create texts which succeed in engaging a broad public audience without sacrificing scholarship:

  • if the content is unfamiliar, use everyday language and take the space to explain your ideas properly. When a text has dense content you need to lighten its physical and linguistic density so the reader’s conceptual space is not overloaded
  • simulate the elements of spoken language Use pauses, questions and variations in speed, volume, stress and rhythm to create a conversational style, echo the text and enhance meaning
  • use familiar words If less familiar or technical terms are important, take the time and space to dei ne them properly. Use the more familiar term first, and then assist learning by repeating the new term in context, for example, ‘smell (olfactory) receptors’ and ‘cocoa butter has to be specially cooled and reheated (tempered) during the process. Tempering maintains a high fat content …’
  • introduce your characters A few extra words can include rather than exclude your readers: , for example, ‘convict architect Francis Greenway’, ‘critic and writer Robert Hughes’ and ‘American minimalist painter Barnett Newman’
  • relate unfamiliar/complex ideas to the experience of the reader. This may require stretching your imagination, for example, ‘Like people at parties, galaxies are found in groups …’
  • maintain a clear thematic structure in your paragraphs, even if this means using the passive voice. In English, the theme is always located at the start of the sentence or its principal clause
  • use descriptive adjectives and adverbs to help make information/people more memorable and multi-dimensional, for example, ‘the peppery Frederick McCoy’ and ‘clubs were enthusiastically established across Australia’.
  • keep your principal clauses intact Don’t fragment the main idea with subordinate ideas/clauses, for example,

born in Scotland in 1826, Marion Smith made this quilt from fabrics given to her by family and friends. After decades of loving use, she gave the quilt to her eldest granddaughter.

not

Marion Smith, who was born in Scotland in 1826, made this quilt, which she gave to her eldest granddaughter after decades of loving
use, from fabrics given to her by family and friends.

  • include the footnotes You don’t need to leave them out. You can also use footnotes as a way of layering information for ‘mixed’ audiences.

Writing for a museum is a fairly unique thing to do. For example, most union communications wouldn’t need footnotes.

Nevertheless, the advice from Blunden is, in my view, worth keeping in mind when you try to explain complex information about industrial or other specialised issues to non-specialists.

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