Tips for communicating your scientific research to non-experts
Being able to clearly communicate your research to people who aren’t experts in your field is an essential skill. It not only helps others understand what you do, but can also help you obtain funding, get your research published and even further your career. Whether presenting your research or writing about it, here are some tips to help you interest and engage your audience.
Prepare a short overview
It’s always good to have a short overview of your research, also known as an elevator pitch, ready for when anyone asks you what you do. This should be one minute or less and can also be included at the start of a presentation or article, to summarise your work before going into more depth. Use this to explain why your research is exciting; what about it made you choose to research this area and how is your research relevant to the outside world.
Know your audience
It is important to understand how much science your audience is likely to know, so you can tailor your language and ensure they will be able to get the most out of your article or presentation, fully understanding the content.
Relate the research
To help them understand any concepts and ideas that are more complex or harder to explain, relate the points to something your audience knows. Using analogies, metaphors and continuous comparisons will help you do this.
For example: “The cell membrane is a protective structure that surrounds all cells. Like the walls of a house, it separates the cell’s internal and external environments. The cell membrane contains proteins which act as gates, determining what molecules can and can’t enter the cell.”
Show the relevance of the research
Explain why you are doing your research and the impact it could have in the future. Name an important issue your research addresses, however be aware that you don’t need to relate your research to a big well-known topic, like Alzheimer’s disease, if there is only a loose link or there are other important issues that your research addresses. This could not only play down your research but could mean that your research is misinterpreted.
An example of explaining the relevance of your research is: “I investigate how proteins in cells misfold. The different structures that proteins have when they fold incorrectly can cause a variety of diseases, depending on the protein, including cystic fibrosis, prion disease and Parkinson’s disease. Understanding what causes proteins to misfold is a stepping-stone to understanding these diseases and developing treatments for them in the future”.
Don’t use scientific jargon
Use lay terms rather than scientific jargon; a term that is commonly used by scientists is likely to be meaningless to non-scientists or could even mean something completely different. For example, BMI means brain-machine interface to neuroscientists, but to non-scientists, it means body mass index. If you described a neuroscience term such as an ‘action potential spike’ to non-scientists, it is unlikely they would know what you mean. Whereas, if you said ‘nerve impulse’ people who aren’t neuroscientists are likely to know what you are talking about.
If you need to use a technical term, explain it and again, you guessed it, relate the term to something the audience already knows.
Make your writing interesting
Try to make your writing or speech as captivating as possible. Instead of saying what, who, when and where, explain why; show your passion for your research and why it motivates you. Exclude details that may not be interesting, to avoid losing the attention of your reader or audience. Simplify your main message if that makes it easier to grasp.
For your writing or speech to be effective, it needs to get straight to the point. A good structure to use is an inverted pyramid, starting with the conclusion (the most important message) and finishing with the background information that would normally be in the introduction of a piece of scientific writing.
Start with one or two sentences explaining the public appeal of your research; the important issue that your research is answering is what will capture people’s interest. Next, expand on this by explaining the topic of your research and how your research is carried out. Keep this as succinct as possible. Finally, finish by connecting back to the important issue your research addresses and what your next steps are.
Give your article or speech to a non-scientist to read
Give your writing to a friend or family member who doesn’t have a science background and see whether they find it interesting and if they get lost or uninterested at any point. They can point out any jargon or words they don’t understand.
It may also help to ask them to summarise the main message they got from your writing to check that’s what you are trying to get across and ensure it won’t be misinterpreted.
Where possible, use illustrations to help explain the science. Try to avoid using complex diagrams, graphs or tables, as these could cause the audience to lose interest.
Be unbiased and apolitical - you want to engage the audience regardless of their political views or religious beliefs.
Whether writing about your research or presenting it to in person, by following these steps you will effectively engage your audience and help those who aren't experts in your field understand the importance and relevance of your research. When they fully understand what you are researching and why, people are more likely to be interested and remember what you do.
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