Blog in 10 2020.
Ontological. Hermeneutics. Liminal. Epistemiology. Synecdochic. Dialectics.
Reading that list of words probably made you feel one of two ways, depending on whether or not you work in academia. To the academic, those words might’ve felt natural – like speaking in a familiar dialect.
The non-academic, though, probably felt lost. Perhaps a bit shut out of the conversation, or that it’s not really meant for them.
That difference sums up the problem with academic jargon.
By definition, jargon’s exclusive
It creates a clear divide between those who get it, and those who don’t. When you’re writing to experienced academics in your field, that’s not as much of a problem. But what about when you’re trying to reach a wider audience – like policymakers, journalists or the general public? Or readers whose first language isn’t English?
Two thirds of academics want to see more knowledge being shared between academia and practice, to make academia more inclusive. To break down that barrier between academia and the wider world, we’ve got to use our language to draw people in – not shut them out. And exclusivity isn’t the only problem…
Jargon can make even the most interesting topics pretty dull
An Ohio State University study found that reading specialised terms actually makes us less excited about certain topics .
In the study, two groups read about topics like surgical robots or self-driving cars. Afterwards, the group exposed to technical language reported that they were less interested in science than those who read the same content, without the technical terms. (Even when those terms were explained, it didn’t help – the presence of jargon alone was enough to put readers off.)
Insider language is only part of the picture
It’s not just jargon that’s working against us in our bid to make academia more accessible. Overly complex language and long, winding sentences make for writing that’s dense and difficult to read.
A recent study of the readability of scientific journals found that 22% of papers published in 2015 had a readability score of less than 0 . That means not even university graduates could be expected to understand them. (For context, the readability of the BBC typically sits at around 60.)
When we’re writing to a wider audience, our language needs to shed light on things – not make them murkier. Here are some tips to help.
1. Find your own Doris and Bertie
When US investor Warren Buffett writes his annual reports, he imagines writing to his sisters, Doris and Bertie – they’re smart, but they’re not experts in finance.
To get out of your academic bubble, think of your favourite non-academic (like a friend, family member or partner), and write to them.
2. Cure acronymitis
Plenty of acronyms make your writing look like hard work, so use as few as possible.
Say you’re writing about the BPS, the British Psychological Society. The first time you use it, explain it. But any time after that, you could just say ‘the society…’ rather than repeating the acronym.
3. Watch out for zombie nouns
Academics love turning verbs into nouns: the utilisation of, the implementation of. Higher education professor Helen Sword calls them zombie nouns: they suck the energy out of your writing, and make it hard to see what’s happening. Use more verbs instead.
4. Swap the passive voice for the active
What’s easier to understand: a trend was observed or we observed a trend? The first is in the passive voice – we don’t know who’s doing the action. The passive voice makes your readability worse, so stick to the active.
5. Shorten your sentences
When your average sentence length is 14 words or fewer, readers take in 90% of your content on a first read. When your sentences stretch up to 43 words, that understanding drops to 10%. Add in a few more full stops to keep it readable.
Bonus tip: track your readability score in Microsoft Word. Find out how to switch it on.
We wrote this blog for academic publisher Emerald Publishing. They turned our tips into a nice infographic, which you can find here.
We’ve all come across them during “these uncertain times” – tone-deaf, cliché, or generally unhelpful Covid communications.
Anyone who came to our recent webinar on getting your message right during a crisis will remember this example from KFC:
In short, KFC put a lot of time and money into a glossy new campaign that brings their long-running slogan to life. But it couldn’t have come out at a worse time.
Ads, billboards, and social posts. All promoting putting your hands in your mouth right in the middle of a pandemic. Naturally, the response was pretty negative. Ad Standards received over 100 complaints, and KFC got a lot of flak on social media.
We were talking this over at The Writer, and we came up with a new take that keeps to the spirit of the original slogan while acknowledging the new norms of the pandemic:
Finger lickin’. Bad. At least right now.
Our chicken: still really good.
May we suggest a spork?
It got us thinking about other recent offenders, and how they might have been more effective. So, here are a couple examples of what not to do in your crisis comms, with edits from The Writer.
Focusing on yourself instead of the reader
One thing that doesn’t play well during a pandemic? Braggy, self-involved writing.
Hertz: A message about Coronavirus (Covid-19)
Whether you rent a car at the airport or at one of our nearly 3,000 convenient neighborhood locations, Hertz is here to get you there. Be assured as the No. 1 ranked company for rental car Customer Satisfaction by J.D. Power, our focus remains on going the extra mile to get you where you need to be safely and with confidence.
We are closely monitoring Coronavirus (COVID-19) and following the current guidance from the leading government and health authorities to ensure we are taking the right actions to protect our customers, employees and the communities where we operate.
Hertz hit a few wrong notes here. There’s the impersonal “Dear Customer.” It’s all about Hertz – not the customer’s concerns. And there’s the inappropriate bit of self-praise: “Be assured as the No. 1 ranked car company for customer satisfaction…”
Here’s our take on a more empathetic response:
We’re still here to get you there – safely
Hello from the home office.
A lot has changed in the last few months. Vacations might be on hold, or you might need to visit a family member. That flight might have been swapped for a road trip.
One thing that hasn’t changed? We’re still here to get you there, wherever the new “there” might be. In a clean, safe, reliable car.
Contact-free drop off and pick up means you can keep your distance. We’re rigorously disinfecting every vehicle with a multi-step cleaning process. And we’re following all available guidelines to keep our employees and customers healthy.
You have enough on your mind. When you ride with us, you can know that you and your family are safe.
Thank you for your continued loyalty. We hope to see you soon.
The Hertz Team
What’s changed? We’ve shifted the focus from Hertz’s record to the reader’s concerns, gave a nod to the new challenges, and addressed worries directly. While using more empathetic, personal language throughout.
Saying something just for the sake of saying it
Here’s an easy one. Take a look at this email from Barnes & Noble.
What exactly are we learning here? We already know that we’re living through turbulent times, right? It seems they felt they had to say something about Covid, but couldn’t come up with anything useful. At best, it’s time wasting. At worst, you sound opportunistic.
In this case our advice is simple: don’t say something just for the sake of saying it. It’s ok to say nothing.
Or, find something useful to offer. Maybe a book recommendation. (I’ve been enjoying Olga Tokarczuk’s writing lately. What about you?)
If you’ve come across a particularly good or bad crisis comm lately, we’d love to see it. Send it along to us @thewriter. And if you’re reading this at Hertz, Barnes & Noble, or KFC, let us know what you think. And feel free to drop us a line next time - email@example.com