Making sense

Public relations academic writing is, so far, mercifully free of the excruciating prose of many social sciences, literary theories and other sources of incomprehensible and impenetrable thought even if it does follow what someone once described as the ‘barbaric’ social sciences referencing and bibliographic systems.

The easy explanation is that PR is not quite as theoretically rigorous as the other areas but the blog prefers to believe it is because many in the PR industry and academia learnt to write according to different imperatives.

The TLS (21-28 December 2012) in reviewing a new book, Stylish Academic Writing by Helen Sword (Harvard University Press) talked about the 1990s when the journal Philosophy and Literature regularly ran examples of bad writing in a Bad Writing Contest. The reviewer, Jennifer Howard, said that Judith Butler had won the contest in its last year, 1998. The blog won’t reproduce the winning entry other than the opening part of a very long sentence: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood in structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are…’ and so on for another few hundred words. Butler defended her prose and claimed the contest unfairly targeted ‘scholars on the left’ and that difficult language was a tool to expose inequalities passed off as common sense. So much for George Orwell eh?

In contrast, Sword, an academic at Auckland University, calls for a new approach which avoids “an addiction to big words and soggy syntax” and a “stylistic revolution that will end in improved reading conditions for all”. Sword provides a lot of practical advice as to how to write better, diagnose when you are writing badly and how to improve comprehension and clarity. Needless to say the advice is not only appropriate to academics but also to all those PR people, and others, who produce the managerial sludge which infects government, corporations and other organisations (such as university bureaucracies).

 This is not so suggest that language can always be totally simple. Learning hard stuff is hard and specialised language goes along with some of that.

An article in the International Journal of High-Energy Physics Cern Courier, The incomprehensibility principle, by the late Gordon Fraser, long-time editor of CERN Courier, looks at the problems of paying attention which is an integral part of learning which we tend to easily forget in our multi-tasking world. (

He wrote: “Educators and psychologists invented the term “attention span” to describe the length of time anyone can concentrate on a particular task before becoming distracted. It is a useful term but span, or duration, is only one aspect of attention. Attention must also have an intensity – and the two variables are independent of each other. Perhaps one can postulate an analogue of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which the intensity of attention multiplied by its span cannot exceed some fixed value. I call this the “incomprehensibility principle” and I have had plenty of opportunities to observe its consequences.

“In the hands of skilled presenters, information can be carefully packaged as entertainment so that the attention needed to digest it is minimal. The trick is to mask the effort with compelling emotional appeal and a floppy boy-band haircut. However, the need to pay attention is still there; in fact, absorbing even the most trivial information demands a modicum of attention. How many of us, when leaving a cinema, have had the nagging feeling that although the film made great entertainment some details of the plot remained less than crystal clear?

“The existence of a minimum level of attention suggests that it is, in some sense, a quantum substance. This means that under close examination, any apparently continuous or sustained effort at paying attention will be revealed as a series of discrete micro-efforts. However, while attention can be chopped up and interleaved with other activities, even tiny pulses of attention demand full concentration, to the exclusion of all other voluntary activities. Any attempt at multitasking, such as using a mobile phone while driving a car, is counterproductive.

“The incomprehensibility principle plays a major role in education, where it is closely linked to the learning process. Because of the subject matter and/or the teacher, some school lessons require more time to assimilate than others.”

The blog is still pondering the extent of irony and playfulness in the article but what is clear is that learning stuff takes attention and thought. The problem is that many people don’t, can’t or don’t want to put in the effort to do so.

Which is, of course, a boon to PR people, politicians, tabloid news media, and anyone else who has a vested interest in persuading people who don’t pay close attention, or invest time in discriminating between sludge, simplifications, populism and reality, to believe various odd things.

BY THE WAY: Apologies: the blog was having a few technical problems with links and book references but the blog technical team has rectified them. Thank you to them. Also the blog doesn’t, as the above might suggest, regularly browse the International Journal of High-End Physics, and the item was passed on by John Spitzer who does.