On the utility of academic writing

I recently completed an independent study, reviewing The MacCrate Report and 24 pieces of academic writing on the subject of teaching legal research afterwards.  I will soon be launching another project using that work as its base, but one thing struck me again and again as I read these articles.  I noted it in my conclusion to the literature journal which was the output for the class and I reproduce it here:

It seems to me that the increased focus on practicality is key – and not just practicality in the realm of how research is taught, but also practicality in terms of the costs and benefits of various tools, and practicality in the way these problems are written about in articles such as the ones I have reviewed.  To identify a problem and discuss it in the abstract only continues the problem – offering real-world ideas, even if they are flawed ones, can help debate and dialogue flourish in the search for actual solutions to bring to the library and the classroom.

Perhaps it is my business background talking, but I found myself getting very frustrated at times reading pieces that either a.) only pointed out problems without offering solutions, or b.) talked about teaching in terms of abstract theory that would be hard to put to use in a classroom or library setting.  Reading these, my brain responded with a dull thud that sounded surprisingly like, “So what?”

In contrast, when I read accounts of clinical programs utilizing the nascent skills of students in research classes or exercises designed to get students to stop thinking about research as a discrete project and put them on the path of thinking about research as part of the overall process of representation, then my brain began to spark off further ideas and refinements.  I could imagine scenarios where something worked and led to something else — or didn’t work and led to something else.  How would I handle that?

Papers that offered practical solutions or outlined actual innovative curricula made me want to teach.  They implicitly handed me tools to try — or at least to consider.  So, I am putting myself on notice: write what you would want to read.

“Let’s make some noise.”

News releases: they are great tools for communicating important information. Whether you’re letting important constituencies know about a new product launch, a regulatory approval, a big new customer or contract, or some other reason for saying, “Yay, us!” a news release is often the basic means of communication.

When you release good news, often even more good can flow out of that announcement. Additional customers might become interested in your product. Potential corporate partners may come out of the woodwork. If you’re publicly traded, your stock might rise. Success can beget even more success.

But what if you’re in a fallow period? What if you’re working hard on the next new product or service offering but aren’t ready to talk about it yet? There are lots of good reasons to stay silent. Perhaps you are a small organization and giving a progress report on a new product could give a bigger competitor the ability to leapfrog ahead of you into the market. Maybe there are too many variables at present to talk about when your project will be complete. Possibly this is a risky project that you might not want to trumpet to the rest of the world until you’re sure enough it’s going to be a success.

In those fallow periods, there is often a lot of pressure from internal and external constituencies to put out some news. A reporter wants to produce a follow-up to a glowing profile she’s written about your company. A shareholder is getting agitated about what’s going on behind the scenes at his favorite investment. An internal manager, having seen the positive collateral benefits of good news, encourages the communications staff to “make some noise” about a relatively minor accomplishment.

What to do when there’s nothing to say and lots of pressure to say it as loudly as possible? Always remembering that every situation is unique and recognizing any regulatory requirements that might exist for your company, here are a few tips to help manage lean information times:

  1. Manage expectations. When possible, telegraph the potential lack of imminent news to important constituencies. If you can give a range of dates when you may have news, give it – but you will have to have news to give by the end of your date range, so be sure you can deliver. Be sure that you’re clear about the length of time it takes to make it to the next milestone and why it will take that long.
  2. Don’t cry wolf. The manager who wants you to “make some noise” about that minor accomplishment is not doing the company any favors. If the company gets the reputation for putting out news releases about trivia, after a while the company’s news isn’t going to get read.
  3. Where possible, bundle. While a single release about one small accomplishment can be a letdown, a release that notes several smaller accomplishments can possibly slake your audience’s thirst for information.
  4. Update your website. When the news bites are too small to bundle, consider whether or not they can be added to your website. Flag these items on the homepage so your audience members know where to go. Better yet, if you have a reasonably steady stream of smaller news bites, consider starting a blog, complete with RSS feed. While you’re at it, flag larger news items here. That way, RSS-savvy audience members can get their complete news picture from a single source and your company remains top-of-mind.

One last piece of advice: when you get to the end of your news drought and are ready to talk again, there will be a lot of temptation to trumpet the news loudly. Maintain a sense of perspective, not just about your company, but about how your news will play in the context of what is going on in your industry as well. Since employees of a company often have a hard time maintaining that perspective, outside advice can help. Contact me if you would like to discuss how I can help you with your communications planning and implementation.

Hiring a freelance writer

Everyone has individual parameters for hiring a freelance writer.  Audiences are almost always specific, and a writer who excels at crafting speeches for senior executives may not have the requisite technical knowledge to create a software manual.

However, there is one thing that makes a freelance writer effective from your very first meeting with them: asking questions and really listening to the answers you give.

Sounds basic, doesn’t it?  But writers often like to talk even more than they like to write.  When presented with the opportunity to display their cleverness, they have a hard time passing it up.  It isn’t all about ego – a freelancer often wants to reassure you.  You’ve hired the right person for the job.  You are in good hands.  Never fear, this writer is so smart the stakeholders you are communicating with will be bowled over by the writer’s convincing way with words.

These well-meaning phrases that roll trippingly off the tongue can be a rabbit hole, however.  Valuable time can be lost while the writer goes haring off in various creative, possibly entertaining, but ultimately wrong directions.

So, the writer needs to give you the room to speak first.  They should ask questions and really listen.  Their follow-up questions should indicate that listening and be designed to elicit the core of the business problem you are hiring them to solve.  Only after you have talked for some time should the writer start making statements and offering up the beginnings of the scaffold of your new communications plan.