Wednesday, June 10, 2009

don't trip on the charismatic megafauna

Yesterday, a friend emailed to say he'd heard this story on "charismatic megafauna" on NPR and "nearly went off the road!" That's because he's heard the term before, when I recalled the very first Communicating Science workshop I facilitate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

I pulled a scientist--a wildlife biologist--out of the audience to demonstrate to all how to develop a message suitable for a public audience from the technical language a scientist uses. When I asked her about which animal species she was studying in a California valley slated for development, she replied, "the charismatic megafauna," without missing a beat. "We have those in Washington, D.C.," I rejoined, "but we call them Congressmen. What did you mean?" (The audience, all scientists from various disciplines laughed--and they didn't understand the term, either.) Turns out she was talking specifically about mountain lions, 200 species of birds and salamanders, and I encouraged her to just say so.

Here's the real issue with the term: Charismatic megafauna is a term developed in biology to describe those animals that are so popular that they can help achieve conservation goals, even for other animals. Think panda bears, polar bears, penguins, whales. So...wait for's an eight-syllable term for an animal that has so much appeal that any person would recognize the real name of the animal. There's a clue that your jargon may have gotten out of control.

Flash forward to yesterday's story: The wildlife biologist using the term missed the chance to omit it from his interview, and so the reporter wrote the story with the term in quotes (a sure sign a definition is coming). When you have an "inside baseball" term of art that's known in your professional tribe, take the time to define it for a public audience--and then use it that way in interviews or presentations. You'll gain nothing from tripping over your own version of charismatic megafauna.

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