Writing Badly, Speaking Better. Practical Books for Doing the Life of the Mind

Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do.  And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.

A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and,  by extension,  to anthropology.   Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in  the Social Sciences   by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book.  Its  a  `How Not To’ book.  But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.

Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields,  within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED summarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .

Sure,  it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember.  And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of  intellectual  posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.

Maia Green works on issues of social transformation in East Africa and the anthropology of international development. She has written on diverse topics ranging from anti-witchcraft practices to the proliferation of NGOs. She teaches at the University of Manchester. manchester.academia.edu/MaiaGreen

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