The idea of "dumbing things down" has ruffled quite a few science communicators' feathers. Soph Arthur breaks down why that phrase is unhelpful and explains how to improve your scicomm.
This is something I get asked much more often than I would like, and something I want to change. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about science communication in my opinion, and a reason many scientists don’t see the importance of communicating their research because they don’t think they should simplify their research. Now while I could write many a blog post about why every researcher should communicate their research, in this post I want to share some helpful advice for any scientist starting out or trying to improve their scicomm about how to simplify your research for your audience. Here are 7 quick tips that will get you started on making your science communication – in any form – more effective:
Make it into a story everyone can relate to
As humans we have been ‘programmed’ over the course of evolution to respond to stories. When we hear a story we resonate with, it causes an increase in the levels of the ‘feel good’ hormone oxytocin in our bodies, which in turn allows us to build connections of trust and empathy. So, rather than talking people through each technical step of your protocol, embrace the art of storytelling and share the journey that your proteins are going on.
There is also no such thing as a general audience, so you need to know your audience! Once you know your audience, you can work out what parts of your research are going to be most relevant to them and highlight that.
Top tip: think about what emotions you want your audience to be experiencing at each point during your story! Emotions help words to stick!
Don’t get bogged down in all the details
A lot of jargon gets thrown around in the world of science. Jargon that can be understood by anyone if you describe it in the right way. But does your audience really need to know all the details? The short answer. No. They don’t want to know about the technical edits you made to that mouse DNA, or the deepest darkest depths of the algorithm you are using for your modelling. Not everyone wants the same level of detail. A technical talk will want those things, but a lay audience talk don’t want to know about it. Think about what your audience will want to know and share that… without the jargon.
Find a good analogy
An analogy is going to conjure up an image in anyone’s mind, and it is going to make what could be quick a complex subject more approachable and less daunting. Using things in that analogy that again are familiar to people is just going to cement that take home message in their minds even more. That and it will make it more memorable that someone could share it with their friends and family again.
Top tip: Another great way to make numbers or scales more familiar to your audience is to compare it to things they can relate to again. A great example is how many times the Earth can fit inside the Sun, or maybe you want to measure something by football pitches, or number of days you have been alive at a certain age.
Make use of images and props
Visuals, in my opinion, are so much more powerful than just words. being able to see how DNA is compacting down to fit into our cells with a demonstration, or just using a simply flow diagram to explain possible outcomes is going to mean that you are not going to lose your audience.
Think about the tone of voice and language that you are using
This is a tricky one to master and requires a lot of trial and error, from my experience anyway. But can also be a way that ‘alienates’ your audience without you even realising it and you lose their concentration, or maybe even the way they perceive scientists. Talking to a non-scientist is not like talking to a toddler. It is just like having a normal conversation that you might have using words that they have heard of. Also, always think about the way you are speaking to people. Could it be putting them off?
Top tip: To get a sense for the appropriate tone, consider how you would like your doctor to talk to you about your test results – assuming you’re not a medical expert!
Share all the information needed to follow along
Saying ‘assume your audience doesn’t know that piece of information’ seems a bit counter intuitive to the point of this blog post. But by assuming your audience does have some background knowledge could mean that you lose them much earlier because they were missing that one small link. Sharing that nugget of information if they did already know it isn’t going to make them feel patronised or belittled, especially if you are using the right tone of voice and language. In fact, part of me believes that sharing facts that a non-scientist does know actually gives your audience a confidence boost, which might in fact make them feel that they can understand the rest of what you have to share. I have no evidence to back this up yet – but maybe this can be another little side hustle of a research project for me?! By giving your audience all the information they need to follow along, you are giving them the best opportunity to relate to your research and story.
Ask open ended questions
Science communication is part of a conversation with your audience. You want them to ask you questions as well as you giving them information, and perhaps even asking them questions. It is also a great way to gauge what your audience already know. By asking your audience ‘what they know about stem cells’ compared to ‘do they know that stem cells create identical copies of themselves’ is allowing your audience to contribute to the discussion and let’s you know where you can build knowledge from.
So there are just some tips that I have learnt as I have done more and more scicomm events and side hustles over the past few years, and ones that have really helped me to improve my scicomm. I hope they do the same for you too. Try them out and let me know how you get on!
A scientist turned science communicator, Soph is currently pursuing her PhD in stem cell biology in Southampton, UK. She is in the final few months of her program, and her research explores how metabolism and low oxygen keeps stem cells pluripotent with the future aim of having better stem cells for use in future medicine.