Make Lil Jon Your Writing Muse
One of our key goals in research is communicating to various audiences, from what our project’s about to what the findings mean. Communicating to lay audiences or the public can be especially hard because we have to turn our technical jargon (which we need for precision when communicating with our peers) into something that a gramma with little technical knowledge or education can understand.* We not only have to condense down what we’re saying, but also need to think of simpler ways of saying it.
Just as important as sharing our work, this skill is also necessary because funders often require a lay abstract submitted with our research proposals, which is used for ranking your application and sharing your project through media once it’s awarded funding. Most of the lay abstracts I see, however, are usually left to the last minute and not exactly tailored to the public:
“implementation of a cluster randomized controlled trial with 800 mother-infant dyads”
“primary and secondary outcomes”
“conducting a hermeneutic phenomenological study”
If you were telling gramma about what you’ve been up to using these phrases she might sweetly respond to this jargon with “That’s nice, dear.” If you were trying to share with someone like Lil Jon, he’d ask “What??”
Lil Jon can help you communicate to lay audiences
In case you don’t know who Lil Jon is, here’s a recap: Grammy-winning rapper from ATL (aka Hotlanta) who rose to fame in the early 2000s; probably best known for 2013’s Turn Down For What (which is actually my fave song to get into a productive-af state of mind). He was parodied on Comedy Central’s Chappelle’s Show.
What you need to know is that he’s globally known for the way he says three words: What? Yeah! Okay! I highly recommend the following video to get you up to speed and get the full effect of the technique to come:
When you’re planning on writing for the public I don’t suggest speaking like Lil Jon, despite how entertaining that would be. Instead, take a sentence or phrase from your lay abstract (or whatever genre you’re working in) and imagine explaining your idea to Lil Jon over and over and over until it he gets it by making each explanation simpler each time. Assume he knows a lot about music but not a dang clue about your topic.
This technique is a variation of The Blockhead Method I learned from two of my favorite writers, Marie Forleo and Laura Belgray, but applied to lay research writing.
The Lil Jon Technique
Fake example sentence:
“Approximately 50% of families experience childhood nighttime incontinence, which can be associated with negative parent-child interactions, as well as poorer parental sleep habits and negative marital satisfaction.”
“Nearly half of families experience child bed wetting, which is linked with poorer parent-child interactions, parental sleep habits, and marital satisfaction.”
“Half of families experience child bed wetting, which can impact parent-child interactions, parents’ sleep and marriage satisfaction.”
“Child bed wetting happens in half of families, which can harm parents’ sleep, their marriage, and how they interact with their child.”
Break it down
I could continue tinkering, but in this quick-n-dirty example I tried to use fewer words and simpler, shorter words as a substitute for complex information (saved 80 characters and 7 words)
“Approximately 50% ” to “nearly half” to “half” (granny’s not going to care about a difference of 46% to 50%; it’s about the story)
“nighttime incontinence” to “bed wetting”
I looked for common threads across the list of outcomes. Here, each concept was negatively impacted by bed wetting and had to do with parents:
“which can be associated with negative … as well as poorer … and negative ” to “which can harm” (assuming there is causal evidence)
“parent-child …parental sleep habits … marital” (because martial implies parents) to “parents ”
I also questioned what each of the outcomes meant in simplistic terms (e.g., What does sleep habits mean? Is it good enough to just say sleep?).
“parent-child interactions…sleep habits… marital satisfaction” to “sleep, their marriage, and how they interact with their child.”
Not just for lay writing
By taking multiple passes over the same sentence, you can find ways to better express your message and to make your writing shorter.
One of my writing mantras over time has been CHOPPY-CHOP. Knowing how to keep your writing tight while conveying precise information takes practice and is an important skill for both grant writing and publishing, since we often struggle to keep within a specified word or page limit. And because we’re required to find space at the very end of writing, right before submission, I hope that you’ll bring the energy of Lil Jon to help get you to the finish line with a little more levity and ease :)
* Of course there are bad-ass grammas with PhDs and sophisticated research knowledge. Here’s some fabulous examples.