Do you remember Mark Twain’s apology? “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
The one thing almost all of us wish we had more of is time. So the first rule of communicating with a broader audience is: Keep it short.
You’re looking for the happy medium between a dissertation and a tweet – for both presentations and written pieces. But shorter also applies to the sentences and the words you choose.
Because if you want to engage people who don’t already know your subject, you need to use language they understand.
Academics are trained to go deep, acknowledge all possibilities, and demonstrate their mastery through impenetrable prose. But words like these are eyes-glaze-over material for the general public. They make people outside your field feel stupidThese habits are hard to break.
But words like these are eyes-glaze-over material for the general public. They make people outside your field feel stupid. Using 5-syllables when 1 or 2 would do doesn’t help you change minds or influence behavior.
Let’s say you’re writing a 750-word newspaper commentary. Start by typing at the top “Hi Mom”. Unless, of course, your mother’s an expert in your field. In which case, “Hi Dad” will do.
If you aim your commentary at a non-expert parent, or an intelligent 15 year old, you’ve already vastly increased the size of your potential audience.
For example, you COULD tell people that your research is investigating mechanisms to enhance equity within the pedagogical environment in order to reduce attrition rates.
OR you could tell them that your work is making classrooms fairer so fewer kids drop out of school.
OK, I know what you’re thinking: You spent years mastering that jargon! It tells people you have a PhD! And besides, it’s more precise.
Yes, yes and yes. But save it for your colleagues and the academic journals.
Another thing that will help you communicate with a lay audience? Don’t craft your sentences in the passive voice. “It was determined…” “Subjects were observed…”
Starting a sentence this way makes you sound like a politician. “Mistakes were made.” People want to know who made the mistakes, who bserved the results?
Here’s a useful tip: if you can insert the words “by zombies” into your sentence, it’s passive, and you can probably change it to make it livelier.
To conclude: If you want to engage more people in the stuff you care about, aim for:Everyday words, shorter sentences, active verbs.
And be sure to end your remarks or your commentary BEFORE people have stopped listening or reading.
For University Affairs, I’m Shari Graydon of Informed Opinions.