Monday, July 29, 2013

We can say a lot in 1000 words, and a few pictures.

In May I encouraged everyone to think of how to explain their research using the most common 1000 words in American English. There were a lot of excellent submissions!

Now, take a look at this winning poster from a team of Penn State researchers entitled, "Powering Your Car with Sunlight"! The researchers were allowed one word in addition to the list of 1000 common words: energy.

Read more about their effort here, and check out the other poster entries here.

Yes, we can more efficiently explain our research when we use language that is more technical than the 1000 most common words. But I will argue that we can more effectively communicate our research when we take the time to consider the minimal level of technical jargon needed to convey the underlying principles.

Co-posted at


GeorgeRN said...

Excellent idea. One time I gave myself about 10 minutes of unnecessary grief when I wrote in discharge orders to resume a normal diet. I had an interpreter to help with the discharge and the patient wanted to know what a "normal diet" was, what kind of things she should eat. It took almost 10 minutes to explain to her that what she usually eats is what we want her to resume eating. Now I say resume eating what you usually eat.

mathbionerd said...

Haha, that does sound like a fiasco!

J.J. Emerson said...

I've often wondered if the efficient "technical" description and the more layperson-friendly "basic language" description aren't both missing the boat in one important way: the sweet spot where an easy to understand description also introduces new concepts (including vocabulary) in a natural way.

mathbionerd said...

J.J., That's exactly what we should be aiming for when writing papers. Some do this extremely well, and although I try, I know I need to work on it.

More often than not, however, I think there's a culture in science to veer to the technical to sound impressive. I find it very off-putting, or intimidating, to read a paper (or talk to a person) who throws jargon around when there is a simpler way to state something.

I think these kinds of exercises remind us of how isolated we make ourselves when we only speak to the handful of people who are in our specific disciplines.

J.J. Emerson said...

I've found that David Attenborough's and Carl Sagan's shows (for just two examples; anything by NOVA is a good candidate) thread this needle very well. A viewer might go in knowing next to nothing and come out knowing quite a bit of the lay of the land. And such a viewer might even mention something like "predator" or "supernova" as if it were old hand after seeing those amazing shows, when they didn't even know the word before it.

Granted, this is a very high bar, but hey, we can dream!

Adam Retchless said...

I gave up on "up goer five" when the word "plant" was rejected. A useful tool might tell you the rank of the least common word that you've used, so that you can be warned when you inadvertently make your writing less accessible.

I've also appreciated the tools that evaluate the "grade level" of your writing. These analyses typically focus on sentence complexity, so they can help you to keep your sentences short and too the point (which I often fail to do).

mathbionerd said...

Adam, I would never advocate for using only the 1000 most common words. Do you have links to some of the grade-level assessment tools you particularly like. I think this is a great idea!