Outlawing jargon and reporting research as haiku

Dave Poulson
Dave Poulson

By David Poulson

When it comes to writing with clarity, perhaps we all could learn from the government of Tajikistan.

Radio Free Europe reports that the former Soviet republic is fining reporters for using complicated words that ordinary people cannot understand.

They could get nailed with a fine of up to $100 for each offense. Their employers could be liable for up to twice as much.

It doesn’t say much for free speech, but you’ve got to admire that commitment to jargon-busting.

Maybe I ought to incorporate that into the classroom.

Or threaten researchers with something like a swear jar – call it a jargon jar. Each time they lapse into jargon, they throw a quarter into a jar. Some day maybe we can buy a few beers with it.

Or maybe even a few bars.

As director of the translational scholars program for the the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, I  help researchers better communicate their work directly to the public and to decision makers.

Much of that consists of pointing out altruistic and selfish reasons to do so.  I  follow up with tips and techniques and a general admonition to practice, practice, practice.

Many researchers share the same problems – a tendency toward jargon, burying the point, too many words and a lack of focus.

That last one – lack of focus – is big. Addressing it goes a long way toward fixing many other ills. But it’s a hard concept to convey to people whose life’s work is built on the science of others. Researchers tend to provide too much background before finally getting to the point.

It’s not their fault. It’s how science works. You lay extensive groundwork and then build upon it – pushing the limits of what we already know.

That works for academic journals. But it’s a lousy storytelling technique.

How do you convey the flaws of that strategy? Many researchers resist. They insist their work is too complex to be explained succinctly and without specialized knowledge.

It’s not their fault, they say, for having to resort to jargon – the specialized language that works so well within their own workplace.

I don’t buy it. So what’s my teaching strategy? What’s the writing assignment that might change their mind?

How about asking them to explain their research in haiku?

I got thinking about this after reading  a story about someone who has deciphered an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report as a series of 19 haiku.

Truth be told, I’m not a poetry kind of guy. Offhand, I can’t even tell you the rules for writing haiku. But maybe I’ll look them up and challenge the next group of researchers I work with to explain what they’ve discovered as a haiku.

I wouldn’t suggest that they publish it, or even show it to someone. But this strikes me as an excellent way to exercise the literary muscle needed for clarity. And it may also be a great jumping off point that guides where their story should be.

Readers are smart. We should respect them – not talk down to them. I like some of what Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says about the readers we should imagine we’re writing for:

“Academics also have the misconception that when they write for nonacademics, they have to imagine communicating with a truck driver or chicken plucker, and as a result tend to patronize their readers. But most chicken pluckers don’t buy books. Instead, one should imagine writing for a reader that is as intelligent and as intellectually sophisticated as you are but happens not to know what you know.”

What I don’t like about that quote is the assumption that occupational decisions are driven by intelligence and intellectual sophistication. People are remarkably smart regardless of what they do. They simply lack the benefit of knowing what you know.

You have the same deficit.

So lighten up on those readers. Find a way to translate what you know to what they need to know. The words are there. Find them.

And if you can’t, stick a jargon jar on your desk and strive not to go broke.

It sure beats government fines and reporting research as haiku.

David Poulson is the senior associate director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism and directs the translational scholars program for the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation. Parts of this post were reported in a column on the Knight Center’s website.

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