Discriminating Between Apples & Bananas

I got an email last week inviting me to the following talk:

‘Topology Optimization using Barycentric Discretization: Theory and Applications’

I didn’t go. A few weeks earlier, I was asked to:

‘Endogenous Correlated Network Dynamics’

…but I was busy that week, also. And then there was:

‘Group III Nitride Semiconductor Nanostructures for Photonic and Quantum Photonic Applications’

…last spring. I was out of the office for that; I made sure I was.

You may say that this is all very glib: laughing at the nerds with their acronyms and convoluted language. But the point is: I am one of those nerds. I work in the building where those nerds came to present. And yet I don’t understand any of these titles.

Not only are many presentations awful, but the stuff that comes before and after these presentations is also awful. A presentation is part of a communication chain. It is preceded by a title, a flyer, an email or a poster, and followed by a document, a meeting, a book or a website. There is no point putting together a knock-out presentation with a title like, ‘Endogenous Correlated Network Dynamics’ because, due to its title, no one will turn up to see it. Why would they?

There is another interesting point, here, though. Consider the following title, also for a guest lecture:

‘Modeling a Smooth Elastic-Inelastic Transition with a Strongly Objective Numerical Integrator Needing no Iteration’

I’m guessing you won’t understand this one, either, and nor did I. But if you read it again, you will see that there are no specialized acronyms and no fancy words. Maybe the terms ‘integrator’ and ‘iteration’ are bordering on highfalutin, but the other words – ‘elastic’, ‘transition’, ‘numerical’, ‘smooth’ – are all straight-forward.

Except they’re not.

These words don’t mean anything because they can mean so many things. A ‘numerical integrator’ is what? A calculator? A mathematical model? A milometer? A gas meter? Without specific, real-world examples, it is impossible to tell.

All communication is a balancing act between being discriminating and being efficient

Which brings me to the picture at the top of this article. If I were to ask you what this picture shows, I guess you might say, ‘an apple and a banana,’ rather than, ‘two pieces of fruit’ (more general) or ‘a Cox’s Orange Pippin and a Burro banana’ (more specific). This is because we categorise things at what psychologists call the ‘basic level’, which is neither too specific nor too abstract. And this is reflected in how we communicate.

Communication involves choosing words that are a balancing act between two conflicting requirements: being both discriminating and efficient. If you are too discriminating (too much detail) you will demand too much of the listener’s intellect and take too long, and so you are not being efficient. If you try to be too efficient (too little detail) you will not be discriminating. In conversation we seem instinctively to get the balance right, but in presentations many people lose the run of themselves. In an effort to sound sophisticated, speakers often use language that is too specialized at one extreme or too abstract (and therefore meaningless) at the other.

The solution is always to use concrete, real-world examples. Don’t title your talk, ‘Diverse Roles of Glycosaminoglycans in Arterial Wall Mechanics and Mechanobiology’ Instead, say: ‘Stronger Arteries to Prevent Clots’ or ‘Stopping Heart Attacks with Super Drugs’.

And if you think a title like this is a little trite – it is, by the way – then remember that after reading the title, your audience will only be five seconds into a topic that you may have been studying for twenty-five years. They are not going to be ready for words like ‘glycosaminoglycans’ after five seconds.

As a last example, I just read an article on the BBC website which featured, among other things, the work of Dr Silvia Bello from the Natural History Museum. She had written a paper for the American Journal of Physical Anthropology on ‘funerary defleshing and disarticulation after a period of decay’. But what title did the BBC choose for the article? ‘The People Who Ate Each Other’. Catchy.

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