Keywords: The Building Blocks of Authentic Communication
At least in Africa, basic education’s emphasis on communication skills, both written and oral, received a sorry score of only 45% according to a two-year cross-country survey I conducted. This was despite getting an impressive mean score of 85% on the scale of importance for today’s competitive marketplace skills. The art of building a sufficient stock of keywords could well be a key part of the solution to the puzzle, as my mentorship experience has revealed.
The Prime Flashback
In 2013, I woke up to the bitter reality that when it comes to writing technical reports and summaries, there are far too many issues experienced graduates take for granted that fresh graduates should know already. By then, I had written many technical reports and papers, individually and as part of governmental taskforces. I had also undergone a one-year on-the-job training in public policy research and analysis after my MSc qualification. Offering my services as a reviewer for one Elsevier journal had also been my routine since 2007.
Joining the majority in the closed system of assumptions, I naturally fell into the trap of taking it for granted that young graduates should write presentation-ready reports and papers, at least in Kenya. These young graduates, however, get frustrated at their new workplace by jeering supervisors who sarcastically ask them what they did at school, why their qualifications don’t match industry expectations, and even worse, why they didn’t do justice to the taxpayer’s money when they were at school. Promising future scholars have their dreams killed by these callous gestures.
In 2015, after joining a Kenyan university as a lecturer, I decided to mentor young graduates by forming a structured mentorship group called HopeBees (which later became Impact Borderless Digital — IBD). The mentees sign a contract to join the group. The rules of engagement are set in the contract including what we share on our online virtual collaboration platform. The mentees collect credit points for their delivery on assignments, based on which they progressively graduate into bronze, silver, gold, and platinum privilege levels. In July 2019, my mentorship role was extended to the Presidential Digital Talent Programme, a government initiative for mentoring young graduates of STEM.
The Prolific Progress
Recently, I shared some tips on writing good technical reports with the young graduates I mentor. I just realised from the assignments I gave them that they were still deficient in the art of identifying key data and information from the online information superhighway and using keywords to communicate effectively in a concise way. The feedback was that the tips I took lightly, just as a teaser, were quite helpful to many other people even outside my target group. Testimonies came in that the tips helped them in redefining their reading and writing culture. For this reason, I decided to share the post here, if indeed it could be useful to one more person.
The Philosophical Underpinning
I call keywords the compact containers of key messages. Want to graduate into a legitimate member of any scientific community? If yes, then you must diligently work on building an adequate stock of the relevant keywords. The usage of fitting keywords identifies us with the communication culture of any given knowledge community. Do you remember the multiple Cs of effective communication which I have covered in the past Youth Talent & Career Fair series, branded “Impact-Borderless-Digital”? Here they are: constructive, creative, confident, convincing, compact, compelling, and concise. Without a sound mastery of the relevant keywords on the subject, you cannot deliver on these Cs. How do you reach there?
The Promising Approach
You must read smart. Learn to apply Boolean logic when using search engines to filter results from trusted online databases and repositories: AND, OR, NOT, *, and quotation marks (one example of the rich population data you can land on by applying this rule is here: https://population.un.org/wpp/DataQuery/). Prioritise literature from peer-reviewed publications. Perform a thorough bibliographic analysis to trace original sources. Use grey literature from social media, reports, and white papers if you have verified them to be current and reliable.
You cannot do without attending the relevant conferences to stay current in your field. Over time, you will realise that you are organically earning increasing cultural fluency in the subject areas as you listen to mentors, practitioners, and subject experts. Your idea of a research topic will be transformed thereby, and you may just land a trending interest area which will transform your research career into a fascinating, well-funded, and rewarding enterprise — forever. Are there any quick examples?
The Principal Examples
Imagine you were invited to participate in a discussion on Addressing Youth Unemployment in the Digital Era. You will not convince and impact if you are not equipped with the trending keywords: technological innovation, transferable skill sets, soft skills, global technology marketplace, key performance indicators (KPI), key result areas (KRAs), GDP, youth bulge, demographic dividend or time bomb, digital transformation, digital economy, digital literacy, labour market demographics, gig economy, business intelligence, globalisation, global competitiveness, SDGs, etc. You also need to thoroughly read, prepare, and have the right data, e.g. the metrics of performance such as the youth unemployment rate in Kenya compared to the rest of the world, youth population shares, population growth, the size of Kenya’s GDP and its growth rate, etc.
If you are invited to speak on The Power of Quality Data, then keywords such as big data, accuracy and precision, data integrity, FAIR (findability, accessibility, interoperability, and reusability), cloud computing, artificial intelligence, algorithms, data science, edge/fog computing, democratisation, data ecosystem, data governance, silos, legacy systems, open data, structured and unstructured data, etc. must be safe in your wallet of terminologies.
If you are interested in modern resource, environmental or ecological research, then you must read about the relevant national legislation and international conventions besides the trending keywords such as carbon neutrality, biogeochemical cycles, circular economy, life cycle assessment, industrial ecology, natural capital, decarbonisation, critical ecosystems, endangered taxonomic groups, ecological footprint, water-food-energy nexus, biocapacity, Living Planet Index, etc. To stay on the leading edge, don’t entertain complete ignorance when it comes to catchphrases such as Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), or in mining, Mining 4.0. These keywords are the legal currency units of your logical discourse, the essential credit to your progressive lexicon. Else, you will continue sliding down the slippery path of hard and voluminous work on the Internet but without hard and compact outputs.
If you are writing a motivation letter to qualify for sponsorship for further education or special training, keywords come in handy again. You need to address a concise yet convincingly focused and formal one-page letter to the selection committee. The font should be formal, too, not the relaxed types that may portray you as a hyperactive joker, such as Comic Sans. The letter will not be complete if it does not show the panel how the training will equip you to be a better and responsible citizen with key competencies to serve the greater common good, not your self-aggrandizement through promotions. Be self-driven and selfless in the tone, not self-centred and selfish.
Above all, identify the main problem, the prominent gaps in your immediate society or country, that urgently require the kind of training you are applying for. These responsible keywords and generous hints will serve you well in this scenario:
to be equipped with the modern knowledge and skills to make a greater contribution to…;
to enhance my contribution to …;
to make a greater contribution to national development through …;
to advance my contribution to research towards policy development in…, and so on.
You got it right! It is not about you selfish ambitions; It is about the greater common good for society. In other words, focus on the forest and the beauty of being part of the greater collective responsibility, not on yourself as an individual tree (forest thinking as opposed to tree-by-tree thinking). As Dr Shaka Ssali has put it on Straight Talk Africa: Keep focusing on the forest because the trees are going to fall. The big picture matters more!
The Political Say versus the Principled Way
Avoid intensifiers, replacing them with evidence and data to support your logical argument. Instead of playing the political tune by baying, “We depend very heavily on spatial data for public sector decision making”, talk the scientist you’ve been trained all along to be, with data and precision, hence: “About 80% of the data needed for public sector decision making is spatial”. “Population growth in Kenya has been way far much higher than in Germany for astoundingly many years” must give way to: “While Kenya’s population growth rate has been significant at an estimated 3% p.a. over the last decade mainly due to natural increase, Germany’s population has mostly been steady at about 82 million over the last two decades, with recent cases of slight annual increase of barely 1% between 2015 and 2017 attributed mainly to immigration”. The latter sentence demonstrates that you have done your research well. More to the point, the taxpayer’s money spent on educating you has made the difference.
The Place of Platitude and the Power of Precision through Structured Mentorship
How much of this did you know already? At the end of the day, you can still talk to complain, excite, be funny, and have your say. On the contrary, the people who impact say less and have their way by using compliant keywords. It has been said that reasons don’t matter; results do. The immediate insight is the ultimate recorded wisdom: A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver. Broader and deeper insights on career, CVs, interviews, research, scholarships, among others are shared at the regular Impact Borderless Digital forum series.
Until next time, work passionately and diligently, if only to earn an initiation into the scholar’s DNA and emerge a great one in the coming years. I understand that you may just be hungry for more.