Write conference papers that everyone can understand

Article By : Ransom Stephens

If Einstein couldn’t understand your conference paper, then why should you expect anyone else to?

Write your technical paper so that Einstein could understand it.

I’ve been reviewing conference papers for most of my life, literally thousands of them, I’ve written hundreds, and I offer a simple lowest bar: Write it so that Einstein could understand it. Al Einstein was a smart guy, he can figure out pretty much anything if you give him a chance, but if you write in a language that he can’t possibly figure out, you have failed him. And not just him, you’ve failed your colleagues, your alma mater, your friends, your children, and worse yet, you’ve failed me.

PCB, TLA, ISI, FFS, FFE, WTF, NVM [1] – if you pepper your paper with undefined TLAs, even Bert Einstein won’t get it.

I know. You’re tempted to say, “Yeah but someone who doesn’t know what the acronyms mean won’t understand it anyway.”

The problem with that statement collides with the purpose of writing a paper, giving a presentation, or talking to the person on the barstool next to you; it goes to the heart of what it means to communicate.

IEEE IEEE published a paper on how to format your paper for publication. Click image to download the paper. Source: IEEE

Jargon is exclusionary.

If you speak in jargon that I don’t understand, you’re carving me out of your world. When you carve people out of your world, your world gets smaller and smaller until your tiny little world is an echo chamber where your own ideas bounce back at you. It might make you feel big, real big, a real big solipsist [2].

Exclusionary policies are antithetical to innovation. We know a few things about the root processes of innovation and every one of them returns to the concept of diversity of thought.

The tools of innovation grow incrementally, but when tools are brought from one field to another the innovations themselves advance in great leaps. Think disruption.

“Disruption” is right above “unicorn” in venture capitalist parlance. It’s the grail. It’s what you hope to find at the end of the rainbow (BTW, rainbows are circles).

Let’s look at one particular TLA: &*#.

Lo those many years ago in the Big D, there was a research physicist. He’d spent his adult life analyzing data, studying shallow signals hidden in deep backgrounds. One day he decided to take those skills into a different field, your field, in fact. He made a quick splash in the field of signal integrity with the tools he’d learned in basic research; old tools brought to a field where they’d never been applied before.

A group of electrical engineers at a venerable firm in north Dallas were struggling with a signal integrity problem and this so-called “expert in identifying weak signals in strong backgrounds” was brought in to help. A typical meeting room—long elliptical table, big whiteboards on every wall, coffee maker, sterile fluorescent lights you’ve been there before.

The “expert” was introduced around the table. The lead engineer all but said, “Help me Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

They were trying out a technique called &*#. Everyone in the room knew what &*# meant, except the “expert.” The expert had only been in the field for a couple of weeks and had a long way to go to develop his reputation in this new field. Still, he liked being the “expert” and didn’t want to burst that bubble. He also knew that, any second now, he was going to be asked how that team could fix their &*# problem.

What would you do? It’s happened to you before. If you haven’t changed fields since choosing your university major[3] you might have forgotten what it feels like to be the only one in the room who has no idea what the others are talking about. For contrast, you also know how good it feels when you’re in complete control of the subject. So, do you stop the meeting and ask “What does &*# stand for?” Or do you muddle along hoping against hope that you’ll either figure it out or someone will mention it or it will appear on a PowerPoint slide? Hey, don’t kid me, we both know that you’re more likely to go for the ride than advertise your ignorance.

But this guy was the “expert.” He was out on a limb and had to know. But he was also a Raider fan, and Raider fans don’t mind the occasional beer shower, so he piped up, put just a hint of good old blackhole belligerence into his voice, and said, “Can someone please define &*#?”

You can guess what happened.

Silence. All eyes turned to him. A distraught look of pure disappointment came over the lead engineer’s face; the geezer looked like the rug had just been pulled out, Obi Wan forgot his light saber.

A woman near the door whispered the answer, just loud enough so that the sounds of people chuckling, snorting, and gasping their derision weren’t interrupted.

The Raider fan said, “Why the hell didn’t you just say so?” He went to the white board and started drawing feedback loops based on neural networks and explained how the parameters could be trained in simulation and then applied in hardware. Ten minutes. Problem solved.

When you say (or think) “someone who doesn’t know what the acronyms mean won’t understand it anyway” you’re committing a sin against humanity because the success of this species is built on communication even more than the opposable thumb.

You should write it so that a graduate student in mathematics, physics, and a fresh off the BSEE (bachelor of science in electrical engineering) can understand it, but barring that, FFS, write it so that Einstein could understand it.


[1] In order: printed circuit board, three letter acronym, inter-symbol interference, for &*%s sake, feed-forward equalizer, what the &$#%, non-volatile memory.

[2] Solipsist: Philosophy. The theory that only the self exists, or can be proved to exist. extreme preoccupation with and indulgence of one’s feelings, desires, etc.; egoistic self-absorption.

[3] If you haven’t changed your field since choosing your college major, it’s about time you did. I guarantee that a thrill ride and unbounded success awaits when you bring your expertise to a place where it has never been seen before.

—Ransom Stephens is a technologist, science writer, novelist, and Raiders fan.

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