These are my notes from the Policy Writing workshop with Dr Andrew Kaye, and organised by the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange (CUSPE). Like most things nowadays, the workshop took place online (which was great for me, as I wouldn’t have been able to attend it, otherwise), and a recording is available online. Kay is a great speaker (clear but engaging; lots of examples), and I certainly recommend watching the video.
Kaye is Head of International Resilience, at the Government Office for Science, and has extensive experience of both submitting scientific evidence to government, and reading it. He started by stating that, in his experience, the key problem with most of the writing submitted to government is that very little thought is given to the person who is going to read it. Namely, very little consideration is given to the reader’s:
- Knowledge of the topic. In particular, their familiarity with technical jargon. In government, the audience is generally comprised of generalists.
- Time constraints. The reader has lots of documents to read and information to process, in a short period of time.
- Attention span. Documents are usually read at night, at the end of a very long day of making decisions.
Because of these constraints, clarity and simplicity are key, in policy writing. Kaye, then, went on to outline 5 principles of writing policy documents.
- Brevity: Less is more
Focus on ONE topic per submission, and deal with the essential information related to that topic, only.
Be explicit about the message (e.g., Social mixing at Christmas will spell disaster for Covid-19 infections).
Use short words, and avoid elegant variation – e.g., Use, rather than Utilise; Car, rather than automobile.
Delete adjectives and adverbs – e.g., “It is vitality important”
Write in the active voice.
Round up numbers – makes them easier to process, and more memorable.
2. Storytelling & structure: Deliver a clear and interesting narrative
Stories help us make sense of the world, and remember information.
Different genres follow specific storylines – e.g., Romantic comedies start with a disastrous first meeting, followed by a good period, then a crisis, culminating in a satisfactory resolution. Government speeches talk of inheriting a dismal situation from the predecessors which demand though changes, but which will lead to a better future.
Submissions to government would do well by following the inverted pyramid structure that characterises news storylines:
I.e., Front load the writing with the essential information. But, to the 5 questions from news, add: How? How Long? How Much? and “So what”.
Kaye said: If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you are not ready to submit that document.
3. Sounding human: Write in comprehensible, meaningful fashion, to reduce chances of misunderstanding.
What we write must be readily comprehensible to the widest possible audience. Spell out acronyms. Never assume that the reader knows as much as you do. Try to compare complex ideas to phenomena in everyday life. See how Jonathan Van-Tam uses football to talk about the challenges of controlling Covid-19 infection rates, or how Maciej Ceglowski uses deep-fat fryers to talk about the dangers of machine learning.
Also, stay away from what Kaye called “Drivel” – i.e., those words that add very little or no value to a piece of writing. For instance, instead of saying “evidenced based”, actually provide the evidence that you are alluding to.
Moreover, when you talk about people, show them as doers or beneficiaries, depending on the case, but never as units. For instance, Scientists are people that will make contributions in the future, not part of a (STEM) pipeline. Show who is behind this work, and what drove you / them to do this work. Think how we care about how worked on the Covid-19 vaccine, or the scientist behind the Higgs bosom.
Clarify, said Kaye, is not the lowest common denominator but, rather, the most supreme achievement!
4. Persuasion: techniques to boost the receptiveness to your argument
Some persuasion techniques discussed include the following:
- Make a confession or concession – e.g., We had the best intentions with this policy, but it didn’t work. However, now we have a way to make it better.
- Get audience to agree with you – Building agreement on the small points is the scaffolding to agreeing with the overall argument. This is called the principle of consistency, in social psychology.
- Contrast good vs evil – Usually helpful to point out who/what is the enemy in this situation, and contrast yourself with it. E.g., people that misrepresent science and cause terrible problems vs. what you are seeking to do.
- Create sense of urgency – See how sofa advertisers always emphasise the limited time offer. Make audience think that they have no time to lose. E.g. What we are suggesting here, needs to be implemented tomorrow, if we want to avoid the disastrous consequences.
- Show Authority – I.e., Who agrees with your point? What is the consensus? Who else is in the same position as you? Provide evidence (though, here, Kaye warns that you need to understand who you are addressing rhe message to: some are voracious readers and want to know the detail and the sources, but not all. Style needs to be tailored to requirements of the minister).
5. Pizzazz: small details that make your writing more vivid and enticing
- Killer examples – They need to be relevant to audience, but try not to use examples that have been used to death (or too stereotypical).
- The Call-back – Give example at the start. Present your argument. Then, at the end, come back to the example and show how your idea improves the situation for the example.
- Rule of three – A classic piece of rhetoric. Think of popular “slogans” like “liberty, equality and fraternity” or “education, education, education”. BUT, use this sparingly, or it will stand out like a sore thumb.
Finally, Kaye suggested the following examples om how to write, succinctly:
- The Sun – Direct and clear. No fancy words.
- The New Yorker – Particularly, their storytelling and how they humanise the story. Example, when they write about science, they always emphasise the scientist, what s/he has done, and how they got to this place.
Have you come across any good advice on science communication, recently? Or good examples?