Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Ten Hundred Word Challenge OR Who Eats Who[m]

I regret not participating in the 1,000 (read "ten hundred") word challenge put on by the Forum on Science Ethics and Policy at last week's grad student happy hour at the Burke Museum. But I am extremely proud of my fellow Biology Grads who won three out of four categories

The inspiration evidently came from this XKCD comic.

You can absolutely hear it when someone switches into the voice and cadence and construction style of describing their research - because it sounds nothing like the way we speak the rest of the time. The purpose is not to sound smarter (I'm giving the benefit of the doubt here to my fellow scientists), but to try to get in as many words as you can, before someone goes cross-eyed and checks out - which is, of course, ironically counter productive.

So the idea is to describe your research using only the 1,000 most commonly used words in the English language.  Here is my first go, in the language I would use to speak with someone in my field. The words that are not allowed are underlined in red.

Figure 1.  Oh Sweet Jesus, even the pictures are words this time!!  Attempt number 1. 
All the underlined words are not-allowed


There is also an Up Goer 6 editor that colors your words along a green to red continuum based on frequency of usage, rather than imposing such a Draconian threshold. Presumably, the greener your passage the better. Mine is pretty brown - brown red (maybe burnt umber?) 

Figure 2. Woah that's a lot of red, and burnt umber! Isn't it true that red makes your blood pressure go up?

Now, really, I would argue that only half the bright red words are "jargon", even loosely defined: e.g., plasticity, trophic (even spell-check doesn't know that one). The others (e.g., interactions, systems, risk, history) aren't jargon, necessarily. There have to be a top 1,000 words, and, evidently, "addition" just isn't as useful in the everyday parlance as is "shit".  But the way we arrange these, let's say, less-common-but-still-accessible-to-most-people words can also rapidly induce torpor (or "bring sleep quickly" if you prefer - and are still awake).  

So, without further ado, try this on for size:

Figure 3. Success! Not a single red underlined word!

And for those of you seeking greater precision in the results:
Figure 4. Increased resolution from Figure 3.  Some things look red-ish, but not bright red, evidently.

Does that work for you?  Hard to fit into an elevator speech...

Figure 5. Can you hear me now? 

P.S., both this image and my above ten hundred word challenge description are absolutely going on all my professional correspondence from now own.


  1. OMG thank you I FINALLY understand what your research is about now!!! But "eats," "animals," and "tens" are still throwing me for a bit of a loop. Can you please change them to (green) words we normal people use?

  2. But props for the Survivor pic. Thems some mad photoshop skillz yo!