Tips to communicate science to non-scientists

Today, research and scientific data are severely undervalued. Thus, it is increasingly important that the scientific community be able to communicate the value of our work broadly. You may be familiar with the 3 Minute Thesis (3MT), which has the goal of cultivating just that! The 3MT is a competition among PhD scientists around the world to communicate their theses to a lay audience in only 3 minutes. We’ve got a pro in house: Archana Krishnamoorthy, an IGP student, recently won first place in the Vandy 3MT competition! Because scientific communication is a pillar of training, I’ve asked Archana for her tips. Keep reading to check out her insightful rules!

-by Archana Krishnamoorthy

Science communication has evolved from a soft skill into an essential skill for scientists. Be it a tweet, a blog post, or a spiel to your parents about what you do, talking about (your) science to a lay person is an art to be practiced. So, when I was given a chance to participate in 3MT, I perceived it as the perfect opportunity to hone my ability to talk nerdy to a broad audience. I had a lot of fun working on my speech but this exercise also demanded a lot of removing myself from technical details to crystallize the body of research into three minutes. Here are five (and a half) of my cardinal rules for communicating science to a non-scientific audience.

  1. Avoid jargon: Think of jargon as a quaint language that only your circle can understand. For your science to reach a larger audience, try to avoid jargon as much as you can. Our minds default to using specialized terms because we’re familiar with them (also, secretly because we want everyone to think we’re smart). It’s an easy trap to fall into, so err on the side of caution.
    • 1a. Don’t embroider your message: Sometimes, scientists are allured to promulgate their proposition by embellishing them like this. Stop decorating your words, save those for the GRE. Use simple words and simple sentences; remember that uncomplicated words can very effectively communicate great ideas.
  1. Simplify, but don’t overdo it: Another common mistake that people tend to make when asked to break down a concept for a general audience is to oversimplify it. Words such as DNA, genes, cells, and proteins are more commonplace now so those don’t need to be qualified. A good rule of thumb is to never underestimate the intelligence of your audience (nobody ever wants to be talked down to). The converse is also true, overestimation of their knowledge can leave them confused and lead to the dreaded “zoning out” phase. Strike a fine balance between the two to deliver a succinct, clear message.
  1. Follow the hourglass model: Start broad. Narrow down. End broad. Begin by fitting your science into the grand scheme of things. Why should your audience care about what you are going to describe next? How does it matter to them when you say you’re characterizing a protein structure? Step back and introspect on your research. Once you’ve connected the dots, throw in some nonspecific details (watch out for jargons here) about your research. Conclude by summarizing your results and circle back to the big picture.
  1. Storytelling: Doesn’t it seem strange that as adults, we still love to listen to a well-scripted story? Storytelling in science is pivotal to captivate the audience. Realize that all of science communication is a continuous battle for attention. Include analogies or metaphors that will allow your audience to engage with your work. Know your audience and craft a compelling narrative of your exciting research work!
  1. Use friends/family to your advantage: Practice your spiel on family members or friends and ask them for feedback. Pay attention to what they don’t understand and try to tailor your story accordingly. This also helps if you would like somebody to watch your body language while you’re giving a talk; for example, if you are flailing your arms around too much or avoiding eye contact. Alternatively, use the Writing Studio at Vanderbilt as an awesome resource to practice/proofread your work by sharing it with scientists from other disciplines.

Good luck! Go forth and conquer science communication!

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