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Researcher Thought Leadership in 400 Words. Really.

Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Photo by Louis Reed on Unsplash.

“Our researchers need a lot of help writing for the general public.”

Research communicators and directors tell me this all the time.

It means: We tried, and they’re hopeless.

It really means: Most researchers will always be speaking a second language when it comes to communicating their research and expertise with non-specialists.

This is obviously false. Researchers aren’t idiot savants. In addition to being super-smart, they’re highly trained (and trainable). I’ve trained hundreds to give effective short talks to non-specialists, for instance.

So I want to focus today on a solution, not on the prejudice.

Look at this 375-word opinion piece by Michael Greenstone of the University of Chicago, published in Axios last week:

Axios, if you don’t know it, is a two-year old media company that delivers news on politics, tech, media, money, AI, science and other verticals with an approach they call “smart brevity.” Here’s their mission and manifesto.

A lot of their stuff is curated with commentary. Some of it is original from their reporters. A few of the pieces are solicited from outside experts — “Expert Voices.” This is one of those pieces.

I’ve never read one more than 450 words.

Greenstone’s piece follows an Axios formula for these pieces that makes them comparatively easy to write, compared with a free-form 850-word op-ed for other elite media outlets:

  • First, a single opening line setting forth the trend the piece will treat. (“Six US nuclear plants have closed in the past five years and nearly 35% of the remaining fleet are now at risk of early closure or slated to retire.”) We now have a portrait in 25 words of an industry in deep decline.
  • Second: what Axios calls The Big Picture — the necessary background to understand why what’s happening in the trend is happening. In essence, nuclear plants are having difficulty competing on price with competitors, although there are some advanced technologies that could close the gap. This section could also be called “The Problem.”
  • Third: Yes, but. This section undercuts The Big Picture’s closing optimism about the advanced technologies and makes the case that, without a price on carbon, carbon-free technologies like nuclear energy will likely continue to lose market share or require subsidies. Here’s where Greenstone makes his main point — the solution to the problem set forth in the big picture. If you didn’t have a case for optimism in The Big Picture, you could also call this section “The Solution.”
  • Fourth: What to Watch. This section tells you how to know if if a carbon price would be high enough to make nuclear competitive again.
  • Fifth: The bottom line. A memorable summing up. The last line (“To plan on a nuclear renaissance without a price on carbon is to treat hope as a strategy”) is actually probably the hardest line of the piece to get a research to write, because most researchers would consider that formulation too casual. But it’s the off-handed finality of it that makes it so effective.

I don’t have an opinion on whether this piece is correct or incorrect in any of its assumptions or conclusions.

But it is an indelible piece of thought leadership: content written by an expert that makes a strong rhetorical case for a position.

All in fewer than 400 words.

Audiences whose reading behavior prioritizes getting smarter faster eat this up.

Bravo to Axios for pioneering this approach and seeing it through.

But any researcher (with help from communications professional, or perhaps on their own) could do the same. The structure is that good.

I write every weekday about research communications and thought leadership. Subscribe here.

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