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Communicating Science and ComSciCon2015

Advice for discussing research in an accessible manner

February 22, 2015

Katy Meyers Emery is a PhD student in Anthropology at Michigan State University. You can find her on Twitter at @bonesdonotlie or at her blog, Bones Don’t Lie.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase in the push for graduate students to be able to share their research in a variety of formats. You can enter competitions to Dance Your PhD or share your research in 3-Minute Thesis Challenges. We’ve seen challenges to summarize your dissertation in 140 characters on Twitter, and blogging your dissertation is increasingly common (see Emily’s fantastic open thread discussion about this topic in particular). While it is great to see graduate student research being shared in creative new ways, it points to something broader, something more important that we as grad students need: the ability to summarize our work for the public in an accessible manner.

Being able to quickly and coherently summarize one’s research is a necessary and essential skill for collaborating with others, networking with potential employers, and conveying one’s research to the broader publics. The Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology writes that “although traditional scientific training typically does not prepare scientists and engineers to be effective communicators outside of academia, funding agencies and research institutions are increasingly encouraging researchers to extend beyond peer-reviewed publishing and communicate their results directly to the greater public.” The need for this level of communication is even being discussed at the upcoming National Council on Public History conference. Despite that, we continue to see an academic focus on conference-style, high-level, academic speaking that is more appropriate for research seminars than sharing one’s research broadly.

But how do we go about doing this? We’ve spent years learning to speak “academic,” so how do we stop doing that and speak to everyone?

  1. Tell a compelling story: When sharing one’s research, it can help to start from an exciting question or proposition, or something familiar to your audience. When I’m introducing new topics in my blog, I like to start with a comparison to popular TV or a reference to a news story that may be more relevant to the average person. Also, by framing the research in a storytelling style (introducing the topic, sharing the background and evidence, retelling the fascinating discovery, and then linking this back to the broader topic) you pull the audience in and make them want to hear more. As Maddalena Bearzi writes, you can’t always tell a cute story, but by using a storyline you can keep the audience more engaged.

  2. Explain things simply and be straightforward: Albert Einstein once said “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Being able to share one’s research in an engaging way that can be understood by anyone requires a deep knowledge of one’s research and the ability to translate it into simpler terms. Think about trying to explain your dissertation to your grandmother, or your friend’s grandmother. You need to be able to share the important information without using jargon, but you also don’t want to be pedantic or pejorative—that wouldn’t make granny happy.

  3. Practice: Honestly, the best advice is just to start practicing. There may be topics or portions of your research that seem crystal clear and simple to you, but may not when you try to explain them to someone outside of your field. Enter competitions, go to broadly themed conferences, do volunteer lessons for kids, guest lecture in introductory courses—just practice. If you don’t want to do it in public, you can always start blogging your ideas!

Another option is to get help from others. ComSciCon is a national workshop for graduate students to improve their science communication skills. Their goal is to “empower future leaders in technical communication to share the results from research in their field to broad and diverse audiences, not just practitioners in their fields.” It is a unique setting to learn new communication skills, hone the skills you already have, practice communicating with people from other disciplines, and produce original works.

If you are interested in attending ComSciCon, the deadline for applications is March 1, and you can apply online here.

What's your advice for helping people better communicate with the public?

[Image of Photophone from Wikimedia Commons and used under Creative Commons License]


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