Scientists, how NOT to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher

Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone. — Albert Einstein

My friend and fellow scientist, Shengpan Lin, and I have been thinking about the importance of science communication.  Among scientists, we generally assume that any time spent communicating our research to non-scientists is time spent not being productive, which ignores how communication also benefits scientists themselves. This communication is a two-way exchange of information, not just one-way broadcasting.

Often, presentations can come across as “too technical” or using “too much jargon” leading to scientists themselves coming across as “spending too much time in their head” and not caring about the audience’s interests.  If scientists create their presentations for non-scientist audiences by simply making adjustments to existing presentations for a scientific audience, the presentation is not likely to be useful for the audience or help the scientist nurture a working relationship with the audience members.

When communicating with non-scientist audiences, scientists need to consider what the audience is most concerned with, what their experiences might be with the topic, their level of knowledge of the topic (do not underestimate this!), and most essentially how the scientist can connect with the audience. We suggest that scientists consider these elements when outlining their presentation before deciding on the content of the presentation.  We came up with a checklist to help you get started (see Box 1 below).  This process involves taking a step (or several steps) back and looking at the big picture, i.e. ask yourself, where does my research fit into society?  This may involve thinking and talking about things you don’t normally think and talk about because you take them for granted.  Every scientist thinks their own research is important but rarely do we think critically about how to explain its importance to others, except briefly in the opening line of a grant proposal or article. Give this a try and drop us a line with your feedback!

Checklist

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