By Caroline Cassidy
I almost choked on my porridge when I read about the World Bank’s chief economist Paul Romer being sidelined for wanting his team to communicate more clearly. I reread the article to check I wasn’t missing something, but there it was: Romer had pushed his staff to write more clearly, “asking for shorter emails and insisting that presentations get straight to point”. He also would not clear a final report if the frequency of “and” exceeded 2.6%.
I’ve spent years working with academics, policymakers, and colleagues, trying to get them to think differently about communicating evidence. The climate has improved significantly in that time; donors are tougher on their recipients, impact is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, and communications is widely recognised as being more than just dissemination.
Yet, it was only a few years ago that a study found that more than 30% of the World Bank’s pdf reports hadn’t been downloaded in five years. In 2015, a further study by Stanford University’s Literary Lab found that World Bank publications are in “another language”. (I should caveat that I read a beautifully written World Bank report the other week so it’s not always the case).
Why isn’t an influential and world-famous institution like the World Bank producing well-communicated research? Why isn’t it leading as an example to others? Isn’t a key role of the World Bank to find sustainable solutions that reduce poverty and build shared prosperity in developing countries? Surely strong communications is a critical piece of that puzzle?
Maybe World Bank staff feel protected from this broader drive to improve communications – after all, they have the reputation and status to get away with it. Writing imprecisely can feel like a safety net. In January, Romer published his internal piece on why good writing is so critical. In it he states: “the problem with vague writing is that it lets an author convey a false impression yet retain plausible deniability when someone tries to verify a claim”. Clear writing is a way to build trust with your audience; it’s the bedrock to getting people to listen to you. As Romer puts it: ‘‘writing is the bottleneck that holds back the rate of diffusion of ideas”.
Last month, thousands of scientists took to the streets globally to fight back against the rise of anti-evidence. These sorts of news stories about academics rejecting communications just aren’t helping. With many governments becoming increasingly reluctant to finance development of poorer nations, surely it is more important than ever that researchers do as much as they can to bridge the gap between research, policy, and the public. This includes making research less elitist and more accessible to policymakers. I am not saying that researchers have to directly influence policy, but they do have to communicate their work clearly so that it can be useful to others.
There is simply no excuse anymore to bury our heads in the evidence sand or hope “post-truth” politics will all blow over. And organisations like the World Bank should be leading the way. If it starts with reducing the number of times you use “and” in a report, then so be it.
(The use of “and” in this blog is 2.3% of total words – phew!).
Caroline Cassidy is Communications Manager at the Overseas Development Institute, specialising in research communications and policy engagement.
Featured image source: Wikipedia.
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