Selling Academia — Is It Ever Appropriate?

By Heather Belgorodtseva, an EFL Teacher and Teacher Trainer, who ran a series of workshops at the Academic Writing Center. She can also be found writing about discourse analysis and online communication at Those Sharp Words.

There is a lot of advice out there about the art of persuasion, starting with Aristotle’s, and working its way down from there.

In truth it’s a very difficult topic to summarize in one short article, not that it stops people from trying, and not that it stops people from looking for a quick fix to their sales pitch problems.

You can get a bit jaded if you start to see persuasive language as a series of random tricks, like the information that using the initial of your middle name, Heather A. Belgorodtseva, not just plain old Heather Belgorodsteva, gives a better impression. Or that by mentioning a number, “Hot today, isn’t it? 35 degrees at least” you can get someone to accept a higher-than-that number in a subsequent negotiation (so it probably pays to think in fahrenheit not centigrade), even if the initial number has nothing to do with your business conversation.

The temptation is to ignore persuasive techniques altogether as tawdry and beneath us, especially in a context such as academia, where surely the idea is to let the facts speak for themselves.

Except that, citations, as well as giving acknowledgement to the researchers who came before us, are absolutely also a persuasive device — the use of testimonials and borrowed authority to lend our arguments weight.

Did you know that a particularly effective place to put a testimonial on a commercial website is next to the button you want people to press to buy something? You do now.

It does help to filter any advice through the lens of common sense.

Take, for example, the issue of power words.

Generally speaking we can stick with neutral descriptions of research. What it does. What it might result in.

Or we can add some commentary to indicate the significance of it.

It is a unique project and will have a life-changing impact. Positive adjectives are a go to technique, but a modifying adverb can completely, absolutely, radically underline how much you believe in it.

There are also verbs that sound a bit more enthusiastic than made, like innovated. Not just improve, but revitalize. At their best, power words are more usefully precise, making your writing, even serious writing more vivid. Do teachers teach? Or do they counsel, assist, evaluate, present, coach, highlight, assess, develop, prepare, inform and empower? Depending on the circumstance?

Does it help make this kind of word choice more palatable if I tell you this in academic writing, this strategy has been noted by Professor Ken (X?) Hyland, a noted researcher who has published more than 26 books and 200 articles, and who is, according to Google scholar, one of the most cited authors in the field of Applied Linguistics*?

In one study he was involved in, which directly compared the more neutral research paper genre with the more public facing blog genre, the researchers found that academic writers tended to use boosters more frequently in the blog posts?

I mean, blogging is known as a more hyperbolic genre, but on the other hand, Zou and Hyland also found that there was more hedging, or a softening of the absolute claims made in blogs.

One conclusion we might draw from this is that the sales technique of boosters is not there for mere showboating, but to draw attention of a less invested reader to the importance of findings, the research, the ideas.

And you have to consider that readers of grant proposals and motivation letters are similarly needing a bit of a push in this way, especially if they are in the middle of their seventh submission this afternoon.

After all, if you are not enthusiastic about what you can or will do, why should anyone else be?

We need, then, to fit the strategy to the genre, and, more importantly the audience and our reason for writing.

As long as what you say is then suitably backed up, of course. Otherwise, yes it does indeed come across as sales pitch flannel.

I also think there are ways to hedge that are appropriate when you don’t want to sound overconfident, but you also don’t want to lose too much authority.

X will happen is a statement of utter certainty, and tricky if the point of a project is to find out if a hypothesis is true.

X might happen on the other hand, sounds a bit too like you have no idea, could go either way, and surely you want to give the impression that you do have some reason, some previous work, to help you base your claim?

X should happen is an underrated use of a modal verb to say that “if the universe is working as we think it does, we can expect X.” Confidence, but allowing for, perhaps, the possibility that there is a hitherto undetected factor we might at a later date need to assimilate.

Overall, I think it is a mistake to assume that persuasive language isn’t an issue for writers (and speakers) from all walks of life. It’s also a mistake to think that advertising and salesmanship doesn’t work. The point is to select the ones that are appropriate, and not just randomly apply the advice we find about how to do it.

What other sales techniques do you see being used in academic writing? Do you feel hassled, or does it simply add a bit of spice to a conference program if a presenter uses clickbait language in their conference title, for example?

Answers below!

*See what I did there?

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