Image: 'Meeting room stencil graffiti' from Richard Rutter's Flickr Photostream

We have just returned from a three-day work-shop with a global health policy agency in a glamorous location. Having been commissioned to write a report for the agency, the workshop took place in the final stages of the writing process.

Thanks to its location, the agency is never short of interns to staff the office, and they joined us in the workshop. They, like us, had to learn how to talk about research and the role that it should play in determining global health policy. It became clear that academic research was regarded as a necessary evil: the policy staff already knew what the report ought to say and were disappointed that our review failed to offer the proper ‘messaging’. The workshop consisted of negotiating how the evidence and messaging might be brought into suitable alignment.

Below we summarise what we learned about the vocabulary used by policy staff, to speed up your learning curve, should you ever get involved in a similar encounter:

Policy-Speak / Translation

‘This is such a rich document!’ = I didn’t have time to read your report since it covers more than one page and I am a very busy person – the Greek crisis won’t solve itself you know!

‘What is the technical public health argument for this service?’ = Arguments about justice or human rights cut no ice with the ministers of health with whom I deal. Isn’t there an infectious disease that could be cited?

‘Be positive! Highlight good practice’ = We don’t want to hear what is wrong with the system – we haven’t got time. It’s quicker to cite something that works.

‘Policy options’ = Formerly known as ‘report recommendations’, the new title highlights how politicians are exercising choice, not blindly following the evidence.

‘Are you sure this isn’t a systematic review?’ = We want to label this report as a systematic review, since it is more likely to be taken seriously. Our division is not high status and we’re competing against more compelling policy priorities.

‘Stop writing for other academics!’ = Your work is wordy, boring and irrelevant!

‘This is Maya who is talking notes of the meeting, which we might circulate later’We are demanding professional-standard of work from you, but our office is staffed by unpaid interns, most of whom are useless, therefore these notes might not be worth the paper they are written on.

‘Let’s park that for now’ = This is compelling evidence but it doesn’t fit with what we want the report to say.

‘We’ll look into commissioning a separate report for that’ = This is compelling evidence but it doesn’t fit with what we want the report to say.

‘Can you move this to an appendix?’This is too politically contentious and it doesn’t fit with what we want the report to say.

‘Could you put that in numbers / in a map / in a diagram?’ = Policy makers will not read any of the words in this report, but may glance at pretty pictures.

‘You actually have a very easy report to write’ = Why are you making this so complicated?

‘We would really like your feedback on this process’ = We are amazed at the time and effort that we have had to put in to make you write a half-way decent report!