How researchers get heard

First, Be Forceful

In physics, force = mass x acceleration. Force propels a body into motion.

In public expertise, forceful content also propels bodies (and minds) into motion. Force = mass x acceleration to the power of alignment.

Your content’s mass : the weight of evidence, argument and emotion it brings to bear. (Doesn’t have to be a lot — but it does need to be enough.)

Your content’s acceleration: its drive, its urgency — the rate of change in its velocity. What’s the forward lean? Are we leaning with you, sliding down the funnel of your persuasiveness?

And your content’s alignment: how straight a line your content makes with your organization’s strategy and with the expectations of the communities you seek to persuade (if they know you) or their values, language and mindsets (if they don’t). In other words: Have you removed all friction — from jargon to arrogance — between your content and what you want it to accomplish?

Mass, acceleration and alignment are all essential to effective public expert content. And alignment is the most critical.

Research communicators lionize a dizzyingly long list of traits that your content should have — everything from clarity to humor, storytelling to collaboration, personalization to warmth. (Those two are different, in case you need to ask.)

But the one content trait that always stops traffic — its forcefulness— never makes the list.

And yet if your content isn’t forceful — your tweet, your talk, your policy brief, your value proposition — we’re gone. Onto the next.

Forceful content combines an original POV, concision, plainspokenness, shared values and an irresistible drive toward an inexorable conclusion. It’s thrilling, addictive anti-bullshit. We hunt it all day, despite our claims to the contrary.

Research papers are never forceful content. Research culture is the opposite of forceful culture. So researchers typically need lots of help producing forceful content. Ideally, that help is hands-on from a professional strategist —​ not just an editor, but someone who understands the myriad ways alignment works in content.

If you’re on your own, here are four principles to guide you toward the force:

  1. If you’re not part of the community you’re trying to talk with, coproduce your content with someone who is.
  2. Structure the content around forceful questions.
  3. Outline specific solutions with specific actors to take specific actions.
  4. Take out everything else.

And you could do worse than use the following progression of forceful structuring questions:

  • What’s wrong, and how precisely is it creating bad consequences in the world?
  • How do you know this?
  • How do you propose we should fix it?
  • Why are you sure your solution will work?

Or, you could just tell it like it is, like this passage from a recent Tressie McMillian Cottom Substack essay on how economists see the intersection of weight, beauty, marriage and dating app markets vs. all the polite ways we airbrush anti-fatness in society:

I despise the cultural gaslighting we do to women, especially women who are deemed “undesirable.” Whether we are undesirable because we are fat or dark or oddly shaped or too witty or too smart, the pattern is the same. We obscure the brutal reality of how much subjective ideas about beauty matter for how some women get to live their lives. Which is what that “svelte” business is about—what they really mean is underweight or thin. And then when a reasonable woman registers that people treat her differently because of how she looks, we rush in to assure her that she is delusional. Worse, we call that assurance “kindness.”

There is nothing kind about lying to people about what is. Economics takes a lot for granted in modeling marriage as a market, but it has one thing pretty right: Thinness and beauty are powerful forms of capital. As much as it pains me to say it, econ has The Discourse beat here on honesty.

Tressie is the essence of forceful here — clear POV and short, declarative sentences (mass) with an argument that accelerates to a declaration on the immorality of “lying to people about what is” and is in complete alignment both with her persona as an unsparing social critic and with her audiences expectations that she will challenge them in uncomfortable ways. (Notice: Forceful is making an argument. It isn’t being argumentative. There is room for discussion. Tressie’s comment section is one of the best.)

I often review my clients’ content as part of my strategic advisory work with them. The single most important recommendation I make, over and over: “Be more forceful” — which is often to say, “Be more clearly yourself.” Which, my clients report, often feels risky, but almost always opens doors.