I just watched Oprah’s first segment as a 60 Minutes contributor, which highlighted the great divide in America caused by how we often don’t effectively communicate our opinions or concerns. One participant said, “We are talking different languages, and we don’t understand one another." That reverberated with me because communicating a highly specialized or technical topic that our audience may not understand can be a difficult, challenging task. We tend to dive into the weeds instead of thoughtfully developing our conversation and explaining the tougher concepts.
As OSPRC's finance director, I get to talk to people about all things school finance: budgets, state aid, federal programs, ad valorem taxes, real property, personal property, etc. One of the most valuable skills I've learned in the past three and a half years with the team has been understanding when a finance discussion has gone beyond the point of understanding for an audience. While school finance isn’t rocket science, it is undoubtedly complex. Unfortunately, at times I do discuss the stuff in the weeds when a general answer might be better. I also know that many have the goal of simplifying our financial system, but until that system changes, we have to work with it. More importantly, we must be able to communicate accurately to our stakeholders what is happening in a straightforward manner they understand.
My biggest help in this was my wife. One evening, I was visiting with her about work and she looked at me and said, “I have no clue what you just said and no sane human would either." Now, I am an understanding, loving human, and I strongly believe I am sane, but I immediately had to respond, “What?” My wife lovingly explained that all I had done was talk in acronyms (I think her words were along the lines of “When did three letters with no meaning become a word?”) and that I was making her feel insecure because of her lack of knowledge on the topic. Much to my embarrassment, she was correct! I was speaking about something so specialized and doing so with an authoritative tone that did nothing but communicate my adept use of acronyms.
After our conversation, I reviewed some of the trainings I've done, and I believe this is a huge issue in school finance. Open communication is important, but clear and factual communication is essential. When we are communicating with teachers, administrators, board members or the public, we must state our information in a manner people can understand, especially when it concerns school finance. That doesn't mean we have to be condescending; we just have to be thoughtful about the terms and phrasing we use to convey our messages.
And let’s just face the Oklahoma budget facts: we are in a budget world that has been upside down the past three years and is not going to get any easier in the near future. This makes our jobs that much more challenging when we share budget information. We must deliver financial facts to our communities in a manner and format that is easily understood. The more times we are perceived as speaking above people’s heads, the fewer opportunities we will have to keep them informed or even keep them wanting to listen. Honest communication with our patrons and co-workers is hard and takes time but is essential.
I don't enjoy sending out financial reports that are negative on the statewide level. So it was a real relief to announce in our last finance report that our state sales tax is actually collecting slightly above where it is supposed to be. Of course then the next line in the same report was about the depressing motor vehicle numbers! The point is this: we have to remember it isn’t always all bad--we can’t always be Chicken Little, we can’t always be bubble gum and rainbows, but we must always be factual and understandable.
If you need help in doing that, any of the directors at OPSRC will help you. Our biggest secret in great communication is Sarah Julian because she can make even me sound literate. If you are having difficulty communicating financial materials to your community, please feel free to contact us and we will help you to join the Society to Fight Unnecessary School Hieroglyphics or SFUSH.