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Mind your language

Written by Dr Gary Hickey, Head of Agora Digital Centre

A key barrier to involving the public meaningfully in research is inaccessible languagePut simply, if people cannot understand the information with which they are being provided then they will find it difficult to contribute and their involvement ends up being tokenistic.

People may not be familiar with the terms and language used in research and/or a particular disciplineAnd the style of some academic writing, with long sentences and words used infrequently during everyday discourse, can be difficult to comprehend and alienate people I know from my role in reviewing research proposals, how difficult some of this language and style of writing can be to grasp. Indeed, some research funders require a Plain English Summary on a research proposal, as members of the public are often involved in the review of research proposalsI also know that many researcher reviewers (me included) always reach for the Plain English Summary first. 

Writing in plain language is a skillI’ve heard some people refer to having to ‘dumb down’ the language to make it suitable for the wider publicI don’t think this is right. When we talk about writing in plain language, we are not denying the complexity of how the world operates, nor the nuances of the concepts etc. with which we are grapplingWhat we are trying to do is to reflect that complexity but make it accessible to peopleIt doesn’t mean we are ‘dumbing down.’  Making something, often quite complex, accessible to others takes time, skill and effortWe should value it more. 

So, what can researchers do to make language accessible to people? 

Here are some tips that I have picked up over the years. 

Firstly, ask yourself ‘who is the audience?’ and ‘what language is that audience likely to use?’  If you are seeking to engage a broad public audience, then there is little point in using words that some or many people are unlikely to be familiar with.  I am not just referring to ‘big’ words here which involve the reader having to consult a dictionary.  I also mean words and expressions that make sense in our research/academic world, but less so in the outside world.  Context is important.  I recall, in a previous non-academic job, working with a communications team on a speech that I was about to make to a public audience.  ‘Gary,’ said our Head of Communications as he perused my first draft, ‘the words ‘thus’ and ‘hitherto’ may be common parlance in your research world but are they words you often use when out with your friends and family?’  (NB to my shame I may have momentarily claimed that this was indeed the case before eventually conceding ‘forsooth’ that my defence was clearly ridiculous).  There is nothing wrong with these words within a particular context but, to a public audience, I think I would likely sound (even more!) pompous and alienate them.  

Thinking about phrases used in academia, one that springs to mind is ‘let’s unpack that concept.’  That makes perfect sense in an academic and research world, where we grapple with concepts and ideas and seek to explain how the world works.  We want to dig into these concepts, with their various codes and sub codes, and see how they interlink to explain phenomena.  But it’s not a phrase that people from outside of this world would recognise or use regularly (if at all!).  If a friend said, ‘I feel happy today,’ you wouldn’t say ‘hmm, let’s unpack that concept.’  Certainly not if you want to remain a friend!  No, you might ask them something like ‘why is that?’’ Another phrase that springs to mind is ‘active listening’.  Again, within certain professional worlds, the ’active’ part has a particular meaning i.e. we are listening attentively.  But for people outside of that world it doesn’t make sense; you are either listening or you are not listening. 

Secondly, avoid using long sentences.  I’ve worked in academia for many years and reviewed countless manuscripts and proposals.  I still sometimes struggle with the length of some sentences, four or five lines long with minimal punctuation, where (in my opinion) far too many points are being made.  Break it up into shorter, punchier sentences.     

Thirdly, try and personalise communication rather than write in the third person.  For example, say ‘I have analysed the data which I am now presenting to you’ rather than ‘The researcher has analysed the data that is being presented to a public audience.’  Writing in this way makes your communication more engaging and less formal and stuffy.   

And my final tip is to have open and honest conversations with members of the public with whom you are working to help ensure that information is provided in a way that suits them.  Ask them how they would like information presented.  Perhaps ask them to help you write and explain.  At the very least get people to read through and comment on drafts. Ask them if there are words or phrases that need further explanation, or if alternatives would be better.  But please don’t ask them to ‘unpack that concept.’ 

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