Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bars, Beers & Mormon Public Affairs: What a Few Questions Taught Me About Writing

I was in a bar sipping a Diet Coke when it happened. One of the journalists from the press tour I
was hosting leaned in, lowered her voice and said “So, do you ever interact with the Mormons?”

I smiled, waved my hand and said, “I’m a Mormon.”

It’s interactions like these that gave me the perspective I needed to be an advocate for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (“The Mormons”) in Frankfurt, Germany. Although admittedly, growing up in Utah, these types of interactions were sparse. My family’s move to the East Coast when I was a junior in high school opened my eyes to how different some of my everyday choices seemed to others. “Why don’t you drink coffee?” my peers wanted to know. “Why don’t you come to track practice on Sunday?”

There were also those questions that hit more unexpectedly: “Can you eat chocolate?” and “Are
your family polygamists?” I found these inquiries amusing but also troubling—She thought that about me this whole time? 

It was with this fresh perspective—I am more different than I think—that I applied to be an intern in my church’s Europe Area Public Affairs Office headquartered in Frankfurt. The mission of this office is to build relationships with communities, governments and faith leaders throughout Europe in order to promote goodwill. The office is led by lawyers, international relations experts and communication specialists who work together to effectively communicate about their relatively unknown religion.
I did a lot of writing in my position, mainly press releases and feature stories catered to European journalists and German community members. But while I completed my work in English, it almost felt like I was writing in a different language. Turns out, Mormons have a vernacular of their own. To my audience, words that made perfect sense to me (“Ward,” “bishop,” “stake”) were meaningless. So my writing changed. A ward was a “local congregation,” a bishop was a “leader of a local congregation,” and a stake was a “group of congregations within a defined area.”

With these small changes, I began to alter my entire approach. I asked myself questions like “Would this make sense to me if I had never heard of my religion before?” and “What does my audience need to know first in order to understand what I am about to say?” and “What part of this story will be interesting and useful to my readers?”  I thought of my friends and acquaintances back at home and the questions they asked. I tried to make my writing as simple, frank and approachable as the casual
conversations I had with them.

This strategy has served me well in my career, even when I’m not communicating about religion. I have learned that as a communicator, my job is to make information as intuitive as possible. When I
begin a project, whether it’s an email newsletter, a press release, or a simple website update, I consider the assumptions I might unknowingly be making.  Psychologists call it the “curse of knowledge bias”—the fact that it’s so easy to forget that your realities aren’t the same as someone else’s realities. I now make it a point to step back from my work and think about my audience. Frequently as a result, I re-organize the information to make it more easily skimmed. Sometimes an entire re-write is in order.

A Utah Mormon in an unfamiliar high school, an American in Germany—I’m grateful for questions and experiences that make me feel a little different because they push me to understand others and improve as a communicator. And while my friend the journalist might have been sipping beer while I nursed a Diet Coke, it turned out we had plenty to talk about.

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