Three recent lessons from academia
A white paper published by the brand engagement and internal communications consultancy Avvio Reply stresses that business leaders who desire to be perceived as authentic should speak directly “from the mind and the heart.” As a copy editor and translator, I would add that writers who want their messages to be perceived as authentic should also speak directly to hearts and minds of their target audiences. Three recent lessons from academia drive this point home very well.
What makes one text boring and another exciting? How does one come up with a message that strikes people as being sincere and authentic rather than contrived and false? One bit of good advice is not to underestimate the intelligence of readers and listeners. Speak to their hearts, but don’t insult their intelligence. The information revolution has not only made people more linguistically savvy than many copywriters and editors would like to think; it’s also given them an arsenal of media weapons with which they can quickly lampoon the gaffes and errors of those they perceive as being foolish or pretentious and take them viral. Politicians have been very slow to learn this.
Misleading statements and errors in website content can be costly to an organization’s reputation
Making broad overstatements and indefensible claims when pitching organizations to the public can backfire. George Washington University’s admissions department recently realized this when someone questioned a claim made on the university’s admissions webpage that “Requests for financial aid do not affect admissions decisions.” That assertion turned out to be less than true. As Scott Jaschik noted in an article published in Inside Higher Ed, the university could have easily avoided what turned out to be a big PR problem by playing up the fact that it had a “needs-aware” admissions policy rather than falsely stating that it followed a “needs-blind” policy. This was very likely more a matter of failing to carefully review a text for more than just punctuation and grammar errors before approving it for release than a conscious attempt to sham the public. It’s a shame when an overstatement made by a copywriter tempted to gild the lily a bit generates a controversy that forces an organization with a distinguished reputation to make a public retraction. I reminds me of how much I love working with clients who don’t take offense when I ask “Can we really say this?”
Precise, well-written abstracts sell academic articles
Overloading opening statements, titles, slogans, taglines, PowerPoint texts, and abstracts is another common mistake. The leaner and cleaner these elements of a text are, the more they catch a reader’s attention and stay in his or her memory. Translators and writers who create subtitles and closed captions are geniuses at condensing long stretches of dialog into concise, informative units. I’ve learned more about paring down bloated copy from French translator Paul Memmi‘s online subtitling workshops than I have from any of the many copyediting courses I’ve taken over the years. Studying how subtitles and closed captions are crafted is one good way of learning how to write more effective PowerPoint presentations, titles, and summaries, but there are other methods. Two professors at the University of Derby have developed some fun exercises that help people write better abstracts for research articles, theses, reviews, and conference proceedings.
Writing a concise, information, and interesting abstract for an academic paper is not as easy as it might seem at first glance, but it’s often an abstract that determines whether or not a submitted article captures a journal editor’s attention or whether another researcher looking for citable literature downloads the entire document or quickly moves on to another. University of Derby biology professors Ian Turner and Ellen Beaumont developed a novel set of exercises for teaching their students how to write better abstracts. One required students to convert information contained in personal ads into short biographies of the authors and another challenged them to condense information contained in celebrity profiles into three words. Students’ word bites were peer tested to determine which were more successful in summing up their subjects. Both professors observed that asking students to work with non-scientific topics also helped them to get a fresh perspective on an otherwise onerous task.
The (almost) lost art of letter-writing
In a world of quickly dashed-off emails and text messages, fewer and fewer people write letters, but that hasn’t diminished the power of a well-written letter to win hearts and minds. A professor at McGill University recently used his creative writing skills to craft a written rejection of a class petition to extend a research paper deadline that left students “singing his praises all over social media.” I’m certain that a curt reply sent via SMS would have generated a very different outcome.
Rex Brynen responded to his students’ petition in a kingly fashion, addressing his students as the “Beloved citizens of POLI 240” and jovially explaining that “changing the due date at the last minute would be unfair to those who have completed their assignments.” He also warned his students that such a move “would most likely cause a drought, plague of locusts, or similar catastrophe for violating the natural order of things.” To mitigate any hard feelings, he went on to duly declare December 25 as a “Day of the Toiling Masses of Poli 340,” during which no student would be expected to work and promised to order a police investigation of what he suspected was “dangerous social activism” inspired by “Iran, Israel, and/or the United States.”
One needs to know his or her audience very well before trying this approach, but this particular message seems to have gone down well with students at McGill University, perhaps because Professor Brynen made the decision to appeal to his students’ hearts and minds rather than simply unburdening his own.