Communications Toolkit for Academics

Telling Your Story

Step 4: Writing Clear Messages

As you work through the message box, keep in mind that your messages:

  • Are the core ideas you are trying to communicate
  • Must be simple, but not simplistic. Can be explained in a sentence
  • Must be jargon-free and written in “shared language”
  • Should be supported by sound bites, metaphors, statistics and/or anecdotes
  • Should be interesting and relevant
  • Should use numbers and statistics sparingly and in ways the public can grasp.

Use Shared Language, Not Jargon

Jargon serves a useful purpose but only when communicating with your peers. As a rule, journalists, policymakers and those in the public interested in science don’t lack the intellect to understand research or science, but they lack the highly specialized vocabulary–jargon–that you use. If your audiences don’t understand the jargon, you can’t effectively communicate. This is why using “shared language” is important. Using shared language is not dumbing down your research, it’s explaining it in terms that others outside your field can understand to bring clarity to a complex topic.

Comparison Language

There are several methods you can use to help explain complex information without jargon. For example, a simile is a comparison that uses "like" or "as" in the comparison. A metaphor is a comparison that says something is something else.
Examples of ways to express your information:

  • Discovery of a cellular snooze button…
  • The fishing industry has acted like a terrible tenant who trashes their rental.
  • Rainforests are the lungs of the planet.
  • Like successful Chicago gangsters, our genes have survived, in some cases for millions of years, in a highly competitive world.
  • Malaria is the Voldemort of parasites.

Using Data

When using data, remember that just because you are immersed in data, most of the public is not. You need to help your audience understand what the numbers mean by putting them in context and conversational terms. Suggestions:

  • Sum it up and simplify
  • Use frequencies instead of probabilities
  • Compare and contrast
  • Explain significance versus magnitude

For example:

Instead of: A 90 percent increase in population.
Try: The population nearly doubled.

Instead of: The lifetime probability of developing liver cancer is 0.46 percent.
Try: Out of every 1,000 people, fewer than five will develop liver cancer.

Instead of: We’ve seen a 4 percent decline since 2006.
Try: We’ve lost more than 260,000 square miles in the past 20 years, which is an area the size of Texas.

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