Know Your Audience

The message is clear.
The message is clear.

I recently read an article that appeared in a prestigious political science journal. The article contained the findings of some interesting research that had relevance to other academic disciplines. But the article was written in dry, convoluted, mind-numbing prose. The writing was so impenetrable that my colleague in another department, someone who knows the literature on the article’s subject, couldn’t even get past the first page.

This led me to wonder again about the function of writing, but for our profession rather than for our students. We tell our students that clear, concise writing is an important skill for the world of work, yet it’s often a case of do as I say, not as I do. Why? Because we are incentivized by academia to write for an audience of just a few dozen fellow academics who conduct research in the same arcane sub-specialty that we do. Some of us have figured out that writing for a broader audience can be quite rewarding, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of our work is too badly written to be relevant to policymakers or the general public. We toil away in self-isolation, garnering little attention from the public, so it is no surprise that most students are uninterested in the field. They wouldn’t care or even notice if political science sank back into the primordial slime from which it first emerged.

The team at Information is Beautiful, run by David McCandless, understands that properly-designed information is more easily understood by society at large and is thus more effective than awkward, jargon-laden prose or reams of numeric statistical results. For example, this diagram shows that Ebola is less deadly and less infectious than HIV, but more deadly and more infectious than bubonic plague. Another infographic shows the truth about Twitter. Then there is the classic table of rhetological fallacies, now available in multiple languages.

It would be nice if information design was a standard component of undergraduate and graduate curricula in political science. Until it is standard, I’ll continue to recommend that my students take courses in art, creative writing, psychology, and marketing.

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