The Public: WOW! Did you feel that?
The Seismologist: Yes.
The Public: Cool. How hard did it shake?
The Seismologist: The earthquake had a magnitude of 5.6
The Public [blank stare]: huh?
The problem: A magnitude 6 event releases >30 times more energy than a M5 event and >1000 times more energy than a M4. When Richter and Gutenberg created the exponential magnitude scale they probably never intended it for public consumption- Oops. Now “Richter Magnitude” is a household term but nobody understands it, really.
The solution: Give the public what they need- give them ShakeMaps.
These Guys have it right!: Why ShakeMap is Necessary
And if you do find yourself needing to explain our hair-brained magnitude scale to someone, see this great video graphic!: Earthquake Magnitude Video