Readings, tips, and strategies for clear expression
(updated from a talk delivered at SxSWedu on March 8, 2017)
Say it so we all can understand.
Why is that so hard for so many experts? What gets in the way?
Well, a lot: The "expert blind spot" that can prevent people who know a lot from knowing how to explain it to the rest of us. Ego — or, its opposite: insecurity or lack of confidence. The comfort that obscurity brings. Laziness or tradition. Professional norms — being perceived as incorrect or amateurish if you're not using the jargon of your industry.
All of this is wrong.
In order to bring innovations and new knowledge to scale, so they can make an inpact and improve lives, the innovators and the knowledge-creators have to describe what they do in ways that we can all understand.
And this is particularly important in the field of education.The findings that education researchers and policymakers generate can change student outcomes, and transform lives. If educators don’t feel equipped to tell that story — to make their findings tell that story — then so much is lost.
So — what are the tools, techniques, tricks of the trade for translating and disseminating research?
Resources That Can Help and Inspire
- Public Communication for Researchers, Carnegie Mellon University (And see the Bridging the Gap slide from our SxSWedu talk.)
- The Hechinger Report
- Usable Knowledge, Harvard Graduate School of Education
- US Department of Education: Going Public: Writing About Research in Everyday Language
- Center for Public Eengagement with Science and Technology (AAAS): Communications Toolkit
- Digital Promise: Putting Education Research to Work
- Sense About Science
- Data Quality Campaign
- Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook
- Public Engagement Project
- Six Web-Based Tools and Apps that Can Help You Communicate Visually
- Writing About a Research Study
- Eight Questions to Ask When Interpreting Academic Studies
- Radiolab, an exceptional source of science storytelling. (Here's an analysis of its storytelling techniques, and here's an audio clip that explains the Earth's capacity to sustain increasing populations.)
Need to Keep Yourself Honest?
- Play the Jargon Generator and Edu-Babble Bingo (the game you don't want to win).
- Read about how edu-speak undermines school improvement, from the Hechinger Report.
- Inventing the next great tool? Remember, only 28 percent of Americans understand ed-tech jargon.
- Cautionary tale: The nonsense paper written by autocomplete, accepted by an international conference on nuclear physics.
To Get Started, Ask 3 Questions
As you plan any public communication of your research, product, or new venture — whether you plan to write it, speak it, or collaborate with your institution’s communications staff — ask:
- Who is my audience?
- What is the key point of my work?
- What is the impact I want this work to have?
And Some Tips
- Identify your audience: Who is your work important to (who should it be important to)?
- What does your audience want to know, and what do they need to know?
- What are your takeaway messages? Practice: What is the one-sentence description of your project or finding? What is the three-sentence description?
- Use plain, clear, simplifying language. Avoid jargon (obviously).
- Be concise.
- Think about an inverted pyramid as you write about, speak about, or present your project to a broad audience. Make your big points first. Add some detail. Then conclude with a finely honed targeted point. Your sentences and paragraphs should be brief.
- OR: Think about an iceberg! The part that’s above the surface is where the really broad, accessible, and clear takeaways are living. But obviously, it's what you can’t see, what’s under the water, that's key. That’s your impact (literally, if you’re the Titanic.) That’s your research. That’s your evidence. That’s what backs up your claims—and what supports your takeaways. You can share all that below-the-surface iceberg stuff with audiences who need or want to probe the topic in a deep, full way.
- No matter what visual metaphor you use, HAVE CONFIDENCE that it’s OK (and good) to describe your work in ways that people can understand. Know that it’s OK to speak in different levels of detail, and with different language, to different audiences.
See or download a longer (but still-evolving and highly idiosyncratic) version of this list: How to Make Knowledge Usable [PDF]