Do you want to catch your audience’s attention? Then, weigh your words. Some terms trigger curiosity, others signal ‘this is going to be boring’. As an academic there is only one way to find out what works: trial and error.
Did you follow one of my courses? Then you probably have practised with crafting a concise and appealing message. Often the exercise is to make a short sentence, but starting with one (or two) word works as well. Testing whether a sentence or a word works, is easy. Say it out loud and wait for the response. It will follow immediately and unavoidably.
Say ‘gender normativity’, ‘international arbitration law’, or ‘gene set enrichment analysis’ out lout and a painful silence follows. Someone might ask: ‘what did you say?’ The opposite effect occurs when you say ‘baby brain’, ‘black hole’ (the photo is irresistable), or ‘bitcoin’. You sense how the others starts to pay attention. ‘Tell me more,’ they say (with words and/or body language). Some words carry the threat of minutes painstakingly slow ticking away. Other words promise minutes full of intellectual delight.
To me ‘energy transition’, ‘gerontology’, and ‘co-creation’ are absolute red flags. Especially when the same sentence also contains ‘innovative’, ‘knowledge centre’, or ‘resilience’. Do I encounter them in the title of a press release, the chance is close to zero that I will read the text. Do I observe them on the title slide of a PowerPoint presentation, my courage fails. People who use words like these as bait, usually do not succeed in delivering a story that captivates me. Often buzzwords and superlatives show to be tricks to focus attention to not so exiting matters. Unfortunately, they sometimes do conceal things that are relevant. On the other hand, terms such as ‘school kid’, ‘hyperloop’, ‘rhetoric’, ‘standard model’, and ‘democracy’ do catch my attention.
Of course this is subjective. Maybe one of the examples of boring terms in the paragraphs above does attract your attention. Calling them red flags might make me look foolish. Some people do get excited when hearing about a ‘knowledge centre for energy transition, ‘innovative gerontology’, or ‘resilient co-creation’. Maybe you lose them when saying ‘school kid’, ‘hyperloop’, ‘rhetoric’, ‘standard model’, and ‘democracy’. What a word does with you, depends on your knowledge, interests, education, life lessons, experiences, convictions, genetic makeup, life-stage, what you read in the newspaper this morning, how well you slept, how much you drank yesterday, and so on.
In principle our planet counts 7,5 billion different perspectives and just as much ways of processing words. To complicate things: what works is changing all the time. Seven years ago, as a rookie dad, I wanted to know everything about babies. Now I am more interested in things regarding school kids. In nine years I might be desperate for information on how to deal with rebellious adolescents. And, although it describes the most important problem of our time, the term ‘climate change’ is so excessively used that it loses its urgency.
All this makes it complicated for you as a researcher to find the words that will engage your audience. Your own instinct fails you. The terms that obsess you, can bore the other to death. Things that your find trivial and obvious, may trigger curiosity in great abundance in your audience. At the same time, you fear looking foolish or incompetent when using lay language. Adaptation to the needs of your audience requires nerve, cultural awareness, empathy, and craftmanship.
Fortunately, you can learn this. To start with, there are two types of audiences: your peers and the rest. You can use jargon when addressing peers. They possess the knowledge of the field and they do use the language every day. When addressing peers, you can safely mention carcinogenic, GFP, or neurodevelopmental disorder.
When addressing people outside your field, it helps to realize that (almost) everyone is curious and potentially wants to hear what you have to say. You only have to find words that are part of the everyday vocabulary of the audience. It is likely that people want to know more when you mention cancer-causing, glow-in-the-dark, and ADHD. Perhaps, the term does not precisely match with what you intend to say, your audience might not have a right definition, but unavoidably images and associations pop up. Their attention is triggered.
A second thing is that you easily can test it. What works for you peers, you experience in the lab, during the coffee break, at the copy machine, or on a conference. Probably that has become clear to you by now. Want to discover what works for politicians, captains of industry, and NWO and ERC panel members? Pay attention when explaining your research during Christmas dinner, at the hairdresser, in the cab, or at the schoolyard. Experiment. Vary your choice of words and take the automatic reactions of your interlocutor very seriously. Glassy eyes and curious questions are the essential data you need if you want to learn how to sell your research.
One last tip: apply the maxim of attract > inform. Begin a sentence with a word that triggers curiosity before getting to the actual content.
Main photo: First Image of a Black Hole (c): EHT Collaboration