Tyler McFadden is a PhD Student in the Department of Biology at Stanford University. He is co-founder of Menlo-Atherton Ecology Research Outdoors, an afterschool science program that engages English Language Learners in hands-on research. You can learn more about his work at his website.
It’s that time of year again. Leaves are changing color, families are stocking up on groceries for the Thanksgiving feast, and graduate students are getting nervous knowing they’ll soon have to explain their research to countless relatives and family friends. Yes, the holidays are here and graduate students nationwide are feeling a familiar pit in their stomach that has nothing to do with turkey or pumpkin pie.
Effectively describing your research to a general audience is a major challenge for most graduate students. Whether it’s talking with relatives at Thanksgiving dinner, or meeting up with your partner's co-workers for happy hour, discussing your work with non-experts can be difficult, stressful, and downright frustrating. When it goes well though, engaging people outside your field can be highly rewarding. After all, many of us pursue graduate work because we want to make a difference in the world, and that requires getting outside of our bubble.
Last year my wife and I founded an afterschool science program for high school English Language Learners, in which we take students out to the field to learn about ecology and do hands-on research. Working with English Language Learners forced me to change my communication style. I learned to speak slower and more clearly, and to carefully observe my audience to gauge their level of understanding. After a lot of trial and error, I honed in on a set of seven strategies that helped me communicate complex ideas more effectively. Since then, I’ve realized that these strategies are equally helpful when discussing my work with family members or other non-expert audiences.
Much like English Language Learners, non-experts tend to be unfamiliar with jargon and likely know little about your topic of research. However, they are perfectly capable of understanding your work; they just aren’t fluent in your language. Luckily, adjusting your communication style is much easier than learning a new language.
Here are seven simple strategies I developed which you can use the next time you’re discussing your work with someone outside your field.
1. Get to the big picture first
Researchers (especially those of us in the sciences) are trained to lay out all the details and wait until the end of a paper to discuss the implications. For a general audience, start with why people should care, and then go into the details. Remember that having a conservation in a second language, whether that language is English or science, can be challenging and even embarrassing. People won’t invest the effort to understand your research unless they first think it is important.
2. Speak slowly and clearly, but show your excitement for the topic
Just like an English Language Learner, this person is likely unfamiliar with the terms and concepts you are presenting. Make it easier for them by enunciating and speaking slow enough for them to process the new information. Take it slow and easy, but don’t be boring. If you drone on in a monotone, your audience will tune out, which is as bad as if you’re using jargon, so keep it exciting. If you didn’t think it was cool, you probably wouldn’t be studying it.
3. Use simple language and sentences
Avoid jargon whenever possible (and it’s almost always possible!). Even terms that you don’t think of as jargon may have a totally different meaning for non-researchers. Keep sentences simple, since its easy to get lost in long complicated sentences. When using complex sentences, be sure to clearly emphasize transitions or contradictions. For example, WHILE you should try to use simple sentences, SOMETIMES you need to use complex sentences, BUT this should be kept to a minimum.
4. Repeat key points in multiple ways
Repeat important concepts and take-aways multiple times using different phrasings or approaches. Some people might not understand one explanation, but they might get it if you re-phrase it or use a different example. Consider using a metaphor or analogy (see point 5) to reinforce your explanation.
5. Relate the content to your audience’s life experiences
Use metaphors, analogies, and examples to relate your research to your audience’s life. I study wildlife ecology, so I always try to explain my research using examples of animals that my audience is familiar with. Think about what your audience knows well and is interested in – maybe they’re a sports fan, or a businessperson, or grew up on a farm. Find an in so that you can put you research in a context that your audience will relate with. But be careful not to get too complicated. Complex analogies or examples can require a lot of explaining and may distract from the point you want to make.
6. Be self-aware and audience-aware
Be conscious of how you are talking, your speed, your tone, your word choice, and the biases or values you are portraying. Pay attention to how your audience is reacting and adjust to them. If they seem confused (or quiet, uninterested, eyes glazed over, etc.), try explaining it a different way. Use a different analogy or simplify your explanation. If they clearly get something, move on and do something more advanced so they don’t get bored.
7. Be concise
Avoid excessive details and long examples or explanations so that your message doesn’t get lost in the static. Recall that this is likely a new topic for your audience, and they don’t speak your language. It is easy for people to get overwhelmed if you present them with too much information.
Communicating research to a general audience is one of the most challenging aspects of a career in research, yet it is a skill in which graduate students receive very little formal training. Building your communication skills takes time and effort, so the more you practice, the better you’ll get. View this holiday season not as a cause for stress, but as an opportunity to improve. Try out these simple communication strategies and see what works for you.
Do you have any other suggestions or strategies for communicating your work to non-experts? Please share them below!