Talking to Congress – Take it Slow!

A former senior congressional staff member told us that members love to talk to scientists because they like to understand new things and they are bright people who enjoy new information.  BUT scientists communicate poorly outside their discipline, and it is often frustrating to members of Congress.  His first piece of advice was to never use acronyms – if you are talking about the United States of America, don’t use USA.

Having spent a lot of time listening to scientists brief congressmen, he also said it is very important to take it slow when talking with a member of Congress –  explain things clearly in common language, and do not ever say, “You are familiar with this concept, right?”.  The member will nod, and say, “Of course”, but that is because they will never want to admit that they don’t know something.  Whereupon, the rest of the conversation is lost on the member.

The staffer said that he couldn’t count the times that a someone had briefed a member and used too much jargon or cited some scientific paper (“This, of course, is based on the groundbreaking work of Smith and Jones, 1995”), while the member made affirmative responses; “Yes I understand, yes I see your point”.  And then,when the scientist had left the room, the member would turn to the staffer and say, “Well that was a waste of my time”.  Confirming and politely checking in on understanding can be difficult. It is probably better to try to evaluate what the member knows ahead of time, and make sure to start from that point.  If you aren’t sure how much a member of congress knows about a technical area, assume it is not much unless the member shows otherwise.