Why bold writing matters

31 January 2018

[Editors’ note: Katharina Nachbar is an OTT School Alumni. She wrote this article after completing the Cutting-edge communications for research and policy course.]

Never have think tanks had more tools at their disposal to communicate what they do. Thanks to new digital channels, the days in which researchers were limited to carrying yet another heavy book or printed report to briefings or roundtable discussions are over. Today, a punchy tweet or well-designed infographic can reach a broader and more diverse audience than all these printed publications ever have. That is good news for those trying to get the message across; it means more opportunities for achieving impact.

What digital technology has not erased, however, is the need for quality writing. To the contrary, be it online or offline, the written word remains the main tool for think tankers to share their perspectives and insights.

Given the importance of effective writing for successful communication, one would expect that think tankers regularly impress as wordsmiths. However, outside of the op-ed sections of major news outlets, there is still surprisingly little bold writing put forward by think tanks. And with bold I mean: clear, compelling and comprehensible writing. Texts that are not only informative, but accessible and convincing in their analysis, imaginative and evocative in their language, and clear in their suggestions for policy change.

There are certainly positive examples produced by think tanks every day; however, in many research settings, sophisticated and concept-heavy analysis is the real deal, while writing is viewed as a downstream activity – something that will somehow come naturally to everyone who has perfected the concepts part and is now ready to put it to paper. Or worse, there is a presumption that using clear and simple language means ‘dumbing it down’ and will be interpreted as a lack of seriousness or scientific rigor.

It is convenient to regard compelling writing for a broad audience as a nice-to-have. But the craft of writing matters, especially for think tanks and especially today. In this climate of populism, ‘fake news’ and a growing mistrust of experts, think tankers should be at the forefront of writing boldly and accessibly. They should aim to formulate as clearly as possible to get their messages across to as many people as possible. That includes tailoring texts to non-expert audiences. It can also mean banning jargon from reports or papers directed at policymakers and more specialist audiences.

Here are a few thoughts that can help both researchers and communications professionals in think tanks make progress on this front:

  1. Prioritise writing. Recognising the importance of bold writing and making it a priority is the first step for getting better at it. That is true for both the individual writer as well as organisations as a whole. Ideally, effective writing is an organisational goal; but even if it is not, there is always room for improvement at the individual level. It may be infectious if a few researchers produce compelling texts that reach broad audiences. Encourage peer feedback on both the quality of the arguments and the quality of the writing. And once that priority is defined, think tanks should invest into the professional development of their staff, for example by offering regular writing workshops.
  2. Know your audience. Different audiences have different interests, levels of expertise and information needs. Factoring that into your texts is a crucial part of writing effectively. While clarity should always be the goal – particularly when writing about complex issues – leveraging text types and structure can also help make pieces of writing more accessible. Executive summaries, for instance, allow you to introduce your main points without diving too deep; they also force you to be explicit and precise for the sake of brevity. Op-eds are useful exercises to work out the best arguments, while writing for a social media audience can help you distill your main messages into a few sentences. And why not experiment with less nerdy formats such as essays to make broader points in a more imaginative way?
  3. Think of writing as a craft. Very few people possess the gift of producing a powerful text on the first attempt. For most writers, bold writing is the product of a cumbersome process of writing, revising, and more writing. While this can be frustrating at times, it should also be a source of relief. Writing is a craft that can be learned and perfected. A compelling text is the result of careful planning and execution, much like a piece of furniture or an architect’s design blueprint. Be clear about your structure and messages first and then look for compelling language to get them across. If you approach a piece of writing with that mindset, it can help you avoid the trap of being wordy to compensate for a lack of structure or overusing “thus” and “therefore” to create a semblance of logic where there might in fact none. However, as is the case with any craft, that process takes time – so do not put it off until the last minute and enlist the help of colleagues and communications professionals to provide feedback. It also helps to seek inspiration from pieces by authors whose writing you find compelling.
  4. Be courageous. It takes courage to challenge established wisdom or go against opinions advocated by powerful individuals or groups. Doing so can leave think tankers vulnerable to attacks from the public as well as their peers, especially in this time of intense media scrutiny and polarisation. It is tempting to use jargon or bland terms to take any edginess out of texts. But progress in public debates depends on individuals using the power of simple, precise and bold language. Why water down your thoughts on paper when you spent all that time sharpening them in your mind?

It is important for senior staff to lead by example and encourage younger, less experienced colleagues to take a bold stance and express it in writing. Leadership should also support junior colleagues when the going gets tough and they are criticized – either by powerful individuals or hostile crowds on social media.

I do not want to suggest that bold writing is easy. In fact, it is really hard. Habits and the pressure to signal expertise can stand in the way of it. But making the leap can go a long way in achieving what think tanks are all about: improving public debates and policymaking on critical challenges. Once you see the impact, writing boldly can be not just rewarding but also fun. And hopefully it will be infectious.