Don’t jeopardize your audience: a lesson in clarity

Did you hear about the Final Jeopardy answer that stumped all of the contestants, causing them to finish the game in a 3-way tie with $0.00? (On Jeopardy, unlike other quiz shows, contestants are given the answers and asked to supply the questions.)

Here’s the answer. Spoiler alert: You’ll find the correct question at the end of this post.


Source: Sony Pictures Entertainment

Got that? Like a lot of good Jeopardy answers, this one requires you to blend your knowledge of disparate things — mid-20th century history and the locations of presidential libraries.

But unlike good Jeopardy answers, this one is just too convoluted.  It takes a lot of untangling just to figure out what they’re looking for. The name of an event? Umm, no. The name of a president? No again.

They’re looking for the name of a city. See it there, buried in the middle?

Watching all 3 contestants walk away empty-handed should serve as a reminder to every technical communicator: keep it as straightforward as you can. Even (especially) when you’re describing things that are complicated. Use an uncomplicated sentence structure in which the subject and predicate are easy to find and all key ideas receive the proper emphasis.

Otherwise your audience will walk away empty-handed.

The question to the answer: What is Little Rock, Arkansas? Did you know it? (I did.)

9 thoughts on “Don’t jeopardize your audience: a lesson in clarity

  1. Lori Meyer

    Yes, that is a convoluted answer, because you have to think about four things: event, signed into law, city, and president! Plus, different times in history: The event was in 1957, but the president whose library is in the referenced city was in office in the 1990s. For me, the phrase “this city” was the clue as to the correct question…but I understand how the contestants could have been stumped. I was stumped for a few minutes myself. I knew the city was Little Rock, but the presidential library reference threw me off, because I was thinking about who was president in 1957 (Eisenhower), and I knew his presidential library was not in Little Rock! Thanks for sharing this…it was a great example of the need to be straightforward with information.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Lori. Your analysis is spot-on. It’s a case study in the dangers of not only twisted syntax but also including details that could lead a reader astray.

  2. Lynnette Viste

    I just watched the clip of this show. Every contestant named a city. So, even with Jeopardy trying to throw them off, people got that part. Why? Because Jeopardy uses a standard wording – ‘this city’ – that clues contestants to what question they expect. I agree that it was a convoluted answer, and maybe the wording did throw them off. But the fact that they were looking for a city was not the problem.

    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks, Lynnette. You’re right: the contestants all named cities in their responses. The category (state capitals) probably helped too. Still, untangling that awkward answer AND naming the right city, all in 30 seconds, was too much — even for those skillful Jeopardy players.

  3. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    My favorite part of this boondoggle of a sentence is the phrase “in this city, signed into law by a president.” The word “signed” directly follows “city,” implying that the president signed the city into law. What could that even mean? What, exactly, did the president—in this case we’re talking about former President Bill Clinton—sign into law?

    In fact, we can’t tell from this Jeopardy question because the word “signed” lacks a proper referent. In other words, the thing that was “signed into law” is hiding between the lines. Look at all the nouns that “signed” could point back to: “city,” “site,” “creation,” and “event.” Neither Clinton nor anyone else ever signed any of those things into law.

    What did Clinton sign into law? Legislation. (I know this only after Googling.) Specifically, he signed into law legislation designating Little Rock Central High School a National Historic Site. Whew. Got it now.

    I admit, I didn’t know (or had forgotten) about what happened at Little Rock Central High School in 1957 until your blog post prompted me to look into the matter, Larry. I’m happy to learn something new today and renew my appreciation for the sacrifices of those who lived through those times of upheaval.

    So, um, thanks for the lesson, Jeopardy?

  4. Pingback: “What is” the Importance of Clarity? | Technical Writing and Editing

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