Earlier this year I read Chip and Dan Heath’s excellent book Made to Stick about why some ideas take root and others vanish into the ether, never to be seen again. The book itself is well worth a read if you’re interested in crafting more compelling messages, and it also introduced me to a phrase that explained one of the most common mistakes I see in both academic writing and presentations: the Curse of Knowledge.

Boiled down to its basics, the Curse of Knowledge states that once you know something, you forget what it’s like to not know it and assume that others also understand it. The very goal of academia is to advance knowledge, so researchers are often marinating in information for years, forgetting that this is actually an unusual state of affairs. I think this is coupled with a fear of insulting the audience: Oh, everyone already knows what X means and the background to subject Y, so I’ll just start with Z. Meanwhile, the reader is wishing the author had started at A and worked their way sequentially through the rest of their argument.

While I focus on improving academic writing at Blue Eagle Academic Services, this is a subject where there is a high crossover with presentation skills. The best presenters I’ve been fortunate to work with are not those who ask themselves the question “What do I want to tell people about my research?” but rather “What does my audience want to know?”

As a corollary to this, please listen to what your audience tells you. So many times when speaking to researchers, I tell them I am not a technical expert in their field but I am curious to know more about what they are doing. This is then followed by them providing me with a very detailed technical description of their project, which quite often gets into the nuts and bolts involved (sometimes there are literal descriptions of nuts and bolts). This is about three layers deeper than I really need to know.

Whether presenting at a conference or writing a document, considering who the audience is and what they are looking for should always be one of the first steps.

  • Is it an audience of academic peers who are looking to see how you’ve advanced the state of the art or argued a new interpretation of a topic? In that case, feel free to share your more technical descriptions … while remembering to provide a bit of context. Not everyone has been on the exact same journey as you, so constructing an easy-to-follow narrative means you can build a strong foundation on which to display your research.

  • Is it an audience from industry? A big mistake that I regularly see is treating an industrial audience the same as an academic one. However, in most cases industrialists are far more interested in knowing how your research can solve their problem, not necessarily every calculation or algorithm that went into it.

  • Is it the general public? Whether writing a blog post or presenting at a science festival, your audience’s background may vary considerably. You could have someone who has never heard about your subject rubbing shoulders with an enthusiastic amateur or an emeritus professor. Aim that everyone should come away from your document (or presentation) with a feeling of excitement: they don’t need to know every in and out, but they should be enthused about the topic and the information you’ve presented. You can always point them in the direction of where to go for additional details and give them the choice of whether to dig a bit deeper.

The best way to understand what your audience is looking for? Ask. This may mean speaking directly to conference or event organisers, or investigating previous publications to gauge the tone and writing style used.

Likewise, if the instructions ask that you provide a summary for a lay audience, don’t just repeat your abstract (I’ve seen this happen a lot); instead, consider what a general audience would most likely want to know and what two or three points you want to get across.

Writing clearly in plain English does not mean dumbing down an argument or a description. It does, however, potentially mean going back to basics. The 5Ws (who, what, where, why, and when) are often good to start with, and throw in a “how” for good measure. It is also worth considering the following questions (depending on your audience of course!):

  • What problem does your research solve?
  • How did you get interested in what you are doing?
  • What is the current state of the art? How does your research advance that?
  • How are you going to accomplish what you set out to do?
  • What is it that you have done so far? What are you planning to do next?
  • What excites you about your research?

This final question gets to the heart of #3 in this series and is often the secret ingredient in good academic writing. Check in soon to find out more, or sign up to have the latest blog post delivered directly to your inbox.

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