6 Tips for Communicating Your Science to Non-Scientists

Ever struggle to effectively communicate your research to non-scientist friends and family? Here are six tips that can help.

You there! Are you a scientist? Have you ever enjoyed the company of your friends and family, maybe over a nice meal or during a leisurely board game, only to be ambushed with the question, “what sort of research do you do?”

Did your heart sink a little? Did you feel a sense of dread creep in, knowing you were either going to have to oversimplify your work (doing it a disservice), or spend way to too much time trying to explain it?

If so, you are not alone! There is at least one other person (me) who completely empathizes with you. But fret not, for there are tools you can use to effectively share your science with your loved ones and beyond.

Here are 6 tips for communicating your science to non-scientists:

1. Put yourself in their shoes

Assess the background knowledge of who’s asking. You might already do this subconsciously, but it helps to take a few intentional moments to think about their experiences—what they’re good at, what they know—and how you might be able to leverage any of these things as a way to provide them with a meaningful answer.

2. Reverse the delivery – start with the bottom line

In almost all scientific papers and presentations, we start with the background first: and this background can be extensive, even when presenting to colleagues in the field. But when explaining things to a non-scientist, starting with background can often be too confusing, causing you to lose your audience before actually getting to your research at all.

Instead, reverse the delivery and start with the overall impact of your work. How does it impact lives or change the world? You might hesitate to do this because, realistically, your work on the bench is probably a long way off from the final device, medicine, material, or process your trying to develop. But the impact of your work will often be the common ground that scientists and non-scientists can meet at. From there, you can slowly but surely introduce background.

3. Figures are your friends

Whether it’s chicken scratch on the back or a receipt or a fully developed digital illustration, visuals are almost always helpful—especially if you’re trying to describe a complicated process or technology.

As a rule of thumb, reveal (or draw) portions of a figure as you explain them to avoid overwhelming your non-scientist with a data dump. And make sure everything you show is necessary; no need to include specific proteins or pathways if you’re not going to talk about them.

4. Write in an active voice

Adopt an active voice in your sentence structure when communicating, both through conversation and text. Funnily enough, this style of writing is often the exact opposite of what we see in scientific literature.

For example, instead of saying, “the data indicate that treatment of this compound in mice results in reduction of tumor size”, say “we injected this compound into mice and saw their tumors shrink”. An active voice is more immersive and often easier to follow.

5. Check in with your audience, however small

If you’re explaining your work to a live human in real time, it may help to pause after certain fundamental points and confirm that your explanations are landing. Making sure your audience, however small, is along for the ride will maximize the chance that both parties have a meaningful, productive conversation.

6. Put these tips to the test!

In the end, these tools are good to know about, but only helpful if you employ them. Practice makes perfect! Practice communicating your research to your roommate, your significant other, or your mom. You might be surprised at their willingness to learn or their knack for picking up concepts.

With any luck, the next time your 2nd cousin who you see twice a year asks you about your job, that sense of dread gets replaced with an eagerness to share.

Enjoyed the read? Read more science communication posts here.

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