If you don’t communicate the science, you may as well never have done it.
An important responsibility for any scientist is sharing their passion for their work and its relevance to society. This means effectively communicating with other scientists both within and outside their field, but also the general public or the layperson.
Why should a scientist have to explain their science to the layperson?
More than ever, science and technology pervade modern life. In order to make well-informed decisions, about our health, our environment and even politics, we all need accurate unbiased information. When it comes to science, scientists are the most direct and knowledgeable source of information. Scientists also have the knowledge and credibility to counter misinformation and misconceptions (for e.g. “fake news”), which clutter public debate.
It is critical for scientists to inform the public about important issues, complex problems and new discoveries. This information can influence how the public votes at the next election, what is discussed at the town hall meeting or community group, what causes they choose to support and where they volunteer. Using targeted communication, scientists can also influence government decisions related to regulation, science policy and funding, which can in turn have an important impact on scientific progress. It is not a stretch to say that the entire fate of humanity could rest on scientists successfully communicating and collaborating to help solve the problems that are facing mankind today.
Scientists are not trained to communicate, except with other scientists
Scientists are well trained in their highly specialized fields of research and they often communicate with other experts, whether it be publishing research in peer-reviewed journals and presenting at scientific conferences. When writing scientific abstracts and publications, grant applications or presenting at professional meetings, different language, form and structure must be used for each audience. The same is true when science communication with the public. The message and meaning does not have to change, just the language used to communicate.
However, scientists often lack the training needed to effectively communicate science to the layperson/general public. Furthermore, as a scientist becomes increasingly expert in his/her field, the farther removed they become from the experience of encountering new concepts or terms.
“Dumbing down” versus concision
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.” – Einstein
Something scientists often complain about when having to communicate to laypeople is having to “dumb down” their scientific research. Let’s discuss “Dumbing down” versus concision.
Dumbing down is the assumption that the audience is too stupid to understand the topic. Watering down or removing information produces a vacuous and uninteresting version of what in reality is complex and fascinating.
Concision is conveying complex information using the fewest possible words. It is an art to tell a concise, interesting, and entertaining story that also conveys substance.
Dumbing down should be removed from our vocabulary. People outside a scientific field are not too stupid to understand a topic and its relevance to society. They are likely knowledgeable in a completely different field, but they also have the capacity to understand new concepts.
How can scientists better communicate with the public?
Communicating complex science to the layperson is difficult. Science communication requires deliberate practice and careful attention to language (avoid using discipline-specific scientific jargon). A few tips below:
Understand your audience
The first questions to ask are: Who is your audience? What is the level of knowledge and interest of your audience?
This is important because in order to be engaging to them, your message must have meaning, be useful or be personal (acknowledge their needs, aspirations and concerns).
Define your key messages
Defining your key messages (or the headline issues you want your audience to remember) is important to clarify your message and to stay focused on the essential information, rather than technical details. You also have to ask yourself, why is this exciting? and why does it matter? Without using scientific jargon, write a few bullet points of the essential information you would like your audience to understand and remember.
Tell a compelling story
Not all research is groundbreaking but all research has a story behind it. People have a natural affinity for good stories. Telling a compelling and personal story with emotion captivates the imagination much more than being lectured on an issue. Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion. People are more engaged if they feel personally connected to the subject.
Use Twitter for science communication and networking
Twitter is a free and wildly popular social media platform which can vastly increase professional network size and diversity. Most scientific institutes and large academic journals have a Twitter account where they publicize findings. News organization, journalists, policy makers and thought leaders are also active on Twitter. There are also many active communities of scientists on Twitter who are looking for perspective and personal insights from authors of scientific papers as well as from other experts.
Twitter is a great way to keep up to date with research findings, exchange ideas and share your research with people in and outside your field. It has been shown that sharing good scientific papers on social media exponentially increases dissemination, boosting the number of citations. The limit on the number of characters and the “rules” of Twitter force you to communicate differently and more concisely. Things that make you think “wow”, peak your curiosity, make you “nerd out”, are a bit silly or make you laugh/smile are especially effective over social media.
Every scientist has been asked by a friend or family member, “So, what do you do?” This is usually followed with two minutes of: “Well, it’s like this…I mean, what I want to know is…well, you know how when…”.
A popular way to help people better communicate orally is improvisational theater or improv. Improv can get you out of your head to learn to talk about your work more spontaneously and directly, and to develop engagement and flexibility. The goal is also for the scientists to pay dynamic attention to their listeners and to connect personally with their audience.
Improv can help you:
- Pay attention and connect personally to your audience
- Find spontaneity: stop being so cerebral!
- Be affirmative and positive (scientists have a tendency to negate)
- Be more comfortable and creative when speaking to people
This may not be for everyone, but the concept is very interesting from a thinking outside the box science communication perspective. Dance Your PhD is an annual contest which challenges scientists to interpret their PhD research as dance. The contest is sponsored by Science magazine and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and HighWire Press. The winners are chosen by an expert panel of scientists and artists.
Use visual aids
Translating scientific concepts into easy-to-understand visuals, infographics and even cartoons, are great methods to vividly illustrate a concept so it can be understood by a broad audience. Even experts deeply entrenched in the field of research appreciate innovative ways of visually representing scientific concepts and problems.
You can easily make diagrams, graphs and pie charts yourself using Microsoft Word, PowerPoint or Excel. You can download free images (but make sure you verify the copyright) from the Internet from websites like Pixabay. You can also buy royalty-free photos and graphics quite cheaply from websites like Shutterstock. This is great for presentations, reports, papers and blogs.
Hire a professional (i.e. me)
If you want a professional look to your materials, you’ll need someone with expertise in graphic design and ideally, someone who understands science and communications. That’s where I come in.
I can help you and your team develop visual aids to effectively communicate your message to other scientists (both within and outside your field), the general public and policy-makers. Whether it be an infographic, an article, an illustration, a presentation, a brochure or even a large-scale booth for a conference, I can do it quickly, efficiently and beautifully! Check out spacedoutscientist.com/me for my portfolio and CV.