How to Pass the Grandma Test


Growing up, I had a “city grandma” and a “Midwestern grandma.”

City grandma was an attorney who worked her way through law school here in Washington and later in life, married a federal judge and lived in Spring Valley DC.

“Midwestern grandma” – Grandma Fiddler – was an ATT operator in the steel town of Youngstown, Ohio who baked us buckeyes.  (If you haven’t had buckeyes, I highly recommend them.)

I always think about my Midwestern grandma – Grandma Fiddler – when I’m trying to craft messaging about a new initiative or program, particularly something complex involving politics, the government or technology.  I ask myself, would my Grandma Fiddler understand what the heck I’m talking about here?   Am I able to explain my point clearly to someone who isn’t well-versed in the subject matter?

So, does your content or message pass the Grandma test?

Those of us in the DC metro area are often guilty of assuming that we are at the center of the universe, where everyone has wifi, is deeply invested in the election and can rattle off agency names like we’re reading a bowl of alphabet soup.  Not the case.

In fact, more than 30 percent of the U.S. still has no access to broadband,  not everyone is glued to CNN or celebrates “Super Tuesday” and even friends of mine in their 30’s don’t know what “DHS” is unless you spell it out.

So, how do you pass the grandma test?

  1. Think of the user or reader first – and not what your organization is looking to say. “What’s in it for me?” is another way of putting this. “This new policy will give you faster access to your benefits.”  Boom.  Done.
  2. Eliminate jargon and acronyms. RFP? DOJ?  “Inside the beltway?” “On the Hill”?  POTUS?  Huh?  Spell it out, son.  Say what you mean and use plain language.  This doesn’t mean dumbing things down, or stripping the technology or science out of your copy.  It means keep it simple and clear.  Use fewer words and shorter sentences.
  3. Get to the point. Tell grandma exactly what you want her to know – and then go eat a buckeye or two. And ask her about her day.

(Dedicated to my grandmas Fiddler and Walsh.)

Alexis Fabbri is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Katarina Hong

Great post! Being a new resident in the DC area, I completely agree you can’t assume that your reader knows everything already. Thanks for sharing!

Monika Dlugopolski

Well said! As any communications person would know, clear and precise writing of messages to the public at large or to others makes very good business sense (blah blah, please wake up as I know you might have fallen asleep) OR Clear Writing Makes Sense!