3 Lessons from DADT Reporting

Yesterday’s release of the findings from the Pentagon’s study on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell encapsulated three important lessons for evaluators regarding how we report and communicate about our work.

#1 The segment on CNN was summarizes in seven words: Letting Openly Gay Troops Serve Won’t Hurt. Seven words. These seven words have been long awaited by many on each side of the issue. For many LGBT troops and their families, it is a confirmation of what they have known all along. For many conservative politicians, it was the evidence they sought before taking further action on DADT (and some are still insistent on heel-dragging *cough*McCain*cough*). Serious and extensive methodology was put into place to systematically survey multiple stakeholder groups, consuming months of staff time and energy, producing surely a report several reams in length. And yet the authors can cut to the quick with just seven words. We should all strive to be so succinct.

#2 Okay, I’m still stuck on the seven words. Because the last two are so critical – “Won’t Hurt.” These words were clearly written by someone who is not a well schooled academic. For well schooled academics with backgrounds in statistics know full well that it is almost always impossible to state anything with such certainty as “Won’t Hurt.” Academics are trained to couch findings with a lot of “maybe under these precise circumstances the impact would be less severe” and a grip of caveats like “of course, we recommend further investigation of the topic in a battery of studies across multiple sites before action should be taken based on these results.” You know these academic reports – they are the ones you finish reading (if you get to the end) with a sense of wonder about what they really proved. While it is fine and well to want to CYA, the caution typically dispelled in academic reporting takes the wind out of the sails of action. It is clear and decisive language like “Won’t Hurt” that decision-makers need in order to proceed.

#3 The main finding was reported with one important secondary finding – that strong leadership is the key to culture change. No surprises there for anyone involved in consulting organizations. This is mantra-like in our world. But it isn’t the content of this finding that holds our lesson. The lesson lies in the design of the communication. The study authors and/or segment writers used a powerful 1-2 punch, setting out the main finding in plain wording and pairing it tightly with the necessary component for success. Granted, there was a lot of talking in there, but the listener or reader walks away with the two key ideas in unassailable language.

The Pentagon’s report on their study of the repeal of DADT was one of the best acts of communication of findings I have seen from a statistical endeavor in as long as I can remember. Kudos. So if everything we think about good reporting and communication is true, this thing should be repealed in no time.

Here is the link to the original broadcast on CNN, complete with follow up story sharing the details of the findings http://www.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/11/30/military.gay.policy/index.html?hpt=T1

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