Boiling down science for the public without oversimplifying

2021-03-08

Communicating science to the public can be a balancing act, especially for academics who are used to speak about their science to peers that share a considerable amount of background knowledge. Many scientists believe that they need to ‘dumb down’ their research in order to make their audience understand it and fear that it will make their idea inaccurate. To show you that this is not the case, this blog will discuss some tips on what to think about when preparing your scientific topic for a talk, blog, or social media post that is meant for the public.

Do not underestimate your audience
While it is true that ‘lay people’ do not have the same expertise in the scientific topic you want to communicate, it does not mean that they are not able to think logically. Do not forget that the ‘lay people’ make up the majority of society and most of them are experts in their own jobs themselves. They are just not trained in the scientific method and unfamiliar with your field. Furthermore, you need to forget that anything about the public is ‘general’, as everyone presents with their unique background, interests, and knowledge. They might not know field specific terms, but they are well capable of processing what you are going to tell them if you present it in a logical way that suits them – just like you can understand what your mechanic is going to do to your car if they explain it in an appropriate fashion.

Set the goal of your communication
To make sure that your audience can follow your idea you need to find out what you want to achieve with your communication first. What is the bigger picture of the scientific topic? Why should they care to find out more about it? Make sure to include the reasons in your communication.

The amount of details needed varies from audience to audience
Wanting someone to understand your research can make you feel like you have to give them all the details, especially if they do not have a scientific education. However, you need to accept that you will not be able to recapitulate all your molecular and cellular biology classes within a 20-minute talk or in a 4000 characters blog post. If overwhelmed by details, your audience will most probably close off and lose interest. It is clear that you will need to cut down on the details and stick to the ones that are necessary to grasp the main idea. Do they really need to know the structure of the gene you knocked out or is it enough for your audience to know that lacking this gene causes excessive food intake? Do they need know which part of the electron transport chain is altered when mitochondria start to produce heat? Probably not. Try to summarize your topic with different amount of details (e.g. for a kid, for a teenager, for an adult) and chose the explanation that fits your audience the best.

Adjust your language
Stick to a language that is accessible for your audience and medium. This does not imply that you need to leave out field specific terms completely though. Sometimes it is not possible to work around them without losing accuracy. In that case, it is better to incorporate the terms and explain them thoroughly. Just make sure it does not happen too often.

Tell a story!
Everyone likes to listen to well-told, engaging stories. Unfortunately, it is not only the content that matters for a story to reach people – it is the way that it is told that makes it most successful. If a speaker manages to make their audience feel involved, understood, and relate to their story, it is more likely that they will continue to listen and trust it. Making use of storytelling techiques and finding metaphors and analogies from peoples’ everyday life can help you to make people care about what you are telling. You could let your audience find the solution to the problem you described themselves by giving them every bit of information that they need to do so. Ask your audience questions to hint them into the right direction and support your words with visuals, such as animations, gifs, images, and emojis. If they feel like they are understanding your logical process, it will be an incredibly rewarding experience for them.

In the end, it will take time and practice to improve your scientific communication. The one and only way to communicate does not exist. The most important thing is that you enjoy to do it, then your audience will most probably, too.

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2 kommentarer

Tack för din kommentar. Den kan komma att modereras innan den publiceras.

  • Lars öhrström

    My experience is that the ‘dumb down’ idea comes not so much from the researchers as from marketing people, reviewers at Kultursidor in Swedish media and perhaps also from communications people at Swedish universities.
    As is rightly pointed out, there are a lot or people out there with a large capacity to understand a great deal about what we do. We should not make them disappointed.

    2021.03.11

  • Carolina Hawranek

    There is a huge difference between simplifying your message and making your message overly simplistic. As a current researcher (and former journalist and one of the "communications people" at universities) I've experienced being in both perspectives when revising sci comm content. Overall, there seem to be a lack in understanding what's needed to adapt content to different audiences.

    "If you can't explain it simply - you don't understand it well enough" is a classic quote attributed to Prof. A.Einstein which says a lot (no matter if he actually said it or not). By re-thinking the main message and excluding unnecessary logical debris and jargon clutter you can actually improve your science in both grant applications and published work. So the confusion about "dumbing down" quite often reflects a misunderstood ambition to nuance or adapt content to different arenas. Every audience deserves a tailored text - no matter if it is a journal editor, a grants evaluator, or a citizen interested in science.

    2021.03.24

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