“No one wants another report that sits on a shelf.”
We must have heard that sentence a million times as we were drafting The Heart of the Matter, the final report of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences. Our funders said it. Our Congressional sponsors said it. Even the commission members said it.
But what can you do to ensure the impact of a report on a topic as seemingly dull as the future of the humanities? Here are a few lessons we’ve learned, based on our extraordinary success with The Heart of the Matter:
Stand out. We’d all love to live in a world in which the best ideas automatically win the day. But even the best ideas need to fight through lots of static and cultural noise to get a fair hearing. The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences stood out, even before it issued its report, because it included some very well-known people who were deeply engaged in the effort. When John Lithgow and George Lucas are among your most active participants, you know you’re off to a good start.
Make friends. Even when you have a stand-out project, you’ll need help when it’s time to get your report in the hands of decision-makers. It’s always best—most efficient and most reassuring—to build your coalition early. Reach out as soon as possible and set your friends at ease. Let them know what’s coming. And offer them something that they can use. The Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences met early and often with scholars, university leaders, learned societies, and humanities councils around the country. Those groups helped us spread our message; we helped them fulfill their missions. Everyone gained something important in the process.
Write carefully. The wrong word at the wrong time can scuttle your efforts and ruin your prospects. So don’t get lazy with your language. Say it strong, clear, and simply. Bring your friends into the editing process to help avoid unnecessary complications in your messaging. And then hope that the inevitable misunderstandings are few and far between. The Heart of the Matter is a big-tent report; anyone can read it and find something to support. That’s a literary strength and the basis of its impact.
Say yes. Your window of opportunity closes quickly. There’s always another report at the printing press, preparing to steal your hits, downloads, and tweets. Be grateful for any attention you receive (attention is not guaranteed in this media-saturated era) and be prepared to answer every question, travel to every city and, most importantly, to say yes to every request…from old friends and new. The Heart of the Matter Around the Country is a record of what happened when we said yes.