Some of what I do at MSU’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism involves helping 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. And then 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 lede, too many words and a lack of focus.
That last one – lack of focus – is a big one. 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 have a tendency 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 of the scientists I work with resist. They insist their work too complex to be explained succinctly. Some insist it’s impossible for someone not trained in their field to understand.
So what’s my teaching strategy for such a challenge? 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 today after AP science writer Seth Bornstein posted a link on Facebook to a story about someone who has deciphered an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report as a series of 19 haiku. Check it out.
Truth be told, I’m not a poetry kind of guy. Offhand, I can’t even tell you the rules for writing haiku. But Seth got me thinking of challenging the next group of researchers I teach to explain the most important thing 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 communication. And it may also be a great jumping off point that guides where the story should be.
What do you think?