Ezra Klein: How researchers are terrible communicators, and how they can do better

Ezra Klein, founder of Vox.com and Wonkblog, went to the World Bank to tell them when and how to popularize research. I learned about modern media lot by watching. I recommend it for that reason alone.

For researchers, there’s an obvious point, which is “don’t write badly”. This is not a helpful comment for most academics, since they are not going to become great writers overnight.

Fortunately I heard a few ways to change style and get better at writing for a wider audience right away.

  • Building suspense does not work. Like many academics, I back load the big insight. I give background and context and try to build interest and suspense. I get to the big finding at the end. That might be a good idea for a journal article, but it’s a terrible idea for every other form of communication in the universe. Klein’s advice: Tell people what’s new and surprising right away, and tell them immediately what they should walk away thinking.
  • In fact, start telling people why they should read in the title. I was interested to hear Klein say he actually liked clickbait titles. That they were better than what we usually do, which is generic statements of the topic or (worse) titles that are inside jokes. This might fine for the journal article, where the aim is to show the 20 people who will read it just how smart we are. It does not work for everyone else.
  • Find the hook to what people care about. Sometimes what makes the issue important to you will make it important to others, and that is enough. I buy Klein’s philosophy: that the public and policymakers are actually intelligent and curious, and the main reason no one reads research is that it’s communicated terribly. But it helps to link your work to the broader issues that people care about. A gazillion people shared my foreign aid post this past week partly because they love cool maps. But they also shared it because a lot of people care about foreign aid and poverty, and how US politics warps our help. So what’s the big issue you tap into?
  • People like and share things that help them establish or reinforce an identity. Why did I share an article last week about a Chick-fil-a franchise owner who defies his company by supporting an LGBT event? Because I get to polish my own self-image as an LGBT supporter. Why read and share this technical article? Because it makes me feel smart. This is the most revealing point Klein made about social media: that we burnish our self-image by what we like or retweet. I personally don’t want to cater to this baser part of our nature, but it’s really helpful to understand that’s how it works.

I recommend the full talk.