The Basics of Outreach
Scientists have developed an effective way of communicating with one another. We are able to show what we did, how we did it, and why it matters—all in the span of a research paper, or an hour-long seminar or even a 15-minute talk at a conference. This structure works well within the scientific community, but we need a different way of communicating when talking about our research to nonscientists.
A simple shape—the triangle—illustrates how these approaches differ. Scientist-to-scientist communication is triangle resting on its point, meaning that background comes first, followed by progressively more specific information. The conclusion of a scientist’s talk or paper is often the “bottom line” or the “point” of the talk.
In contrast, when speaking to nonscientists, you want this take-home message at the beginning. This should be followed by progressively more general information. Thus, this communication structure is a triangle resting on its base—the point comes first.
Once you’ve familiarized yourself with this alternate communication structure, it’s time to decide how to fill it with content. Once again, what works when speaking to scientists will bore or lose your nonscientist audience. Below are some tips and tricks to help you translate your research for outreach.
Show that you’re a person, and not just a scientist. A funny or emotional anecdote will stick in someone’s brain much more readily than a bunch of facts. Weave your science into stories about your experiences in the lab and in the field, or the struggles you’ve gone through as a researcher. Alternatively, relate your science to everyday life or to current news.
Example: You study zooplankton in the Southern Ocean. Instead of talking about genus names and life cycles right off the bat, draw people into your world by recounting your experience of doing a plankton trawl off the coast of Antarctica. Use that as a launching board to tell people about the results of your sampling, and about your research in general. Bring in a plankton net or other equipment to give people a tangible connection to your research.
Analogies are a great way to provide insight into complicated science. Your goal isn’t to be as accurate as possible; instead, you’re finding a balance between accuracy and accessibility, information and interesting-ness.
Example: This explanation of the differences between genomes, chromosomes, and individual genes from Kelly Hogan, at UNC-Chapel Hill:
“The genetic code is often described as being analogous to the written language. I expand this analogy to help students understand the hierarchy that exists in genetics, since I find many students don’t understand the relationship between a gene and a chromosome. Imagine a set of books, perhaps the Harry Potter series. The entire series on the shelf is analogous to the genome. Each book can be thought of as a chromosome. Within each book are chapters, these can be thought of as genes. Lastly, the 26 letters of the alphabet are arranged to make the variation of words within the genes. The genetic code has 4 letters to make unique arrangements/sequences.”
Get Rid of Jargon
Think long and hard about the words you use when explaining your research. Could you reasonably expect someone with a middle school science background to know this term? If not, don’t use it—come up with a simple, clear alternative. Never use a $1 word when a 10¢ one will do.
To practice getting rid of jargon, try the “Up Goer 5 Challenge.” This idea is based off a post in an online comic called xkcd, and takes the idea of losing jargon to the extreme. Your challenge is to explain your research using only the "ten hundred" most common words in the English language—even seemingly simple words like ‘birds’ aren’t allowed. There’s a webpage set up specifically for this purpose—you can type in the text box, and the program will let you know if you’ve strayed outside of your designated vocabulary list. While your resulting explanation won’t win any awards for eloquence, it’s a great way to practice communicating your research in a non-technical way.
Example: Check out examples from scientists on the Ten Hundred Words of Science blog.
Get a Message
Your audience will have limited time and limited attention spans. So sit down, brainstorm a bit, and come up with a few (1-3) take home messages. Think:
What do I want people to walk away thinking, feeling, or knowing?
Design your messages based on those goals. Try to find ways to convey them that are interesting, surprising, or visually appealing. Hook people with your message (the “point” in your communication structure) and then explain the science behind it.
One way to structure your message is through the “ABT” formula, developed by science communicator Randy Olson. “ABT” stands for “And, But, Therefore” and is the scaffolding around which you build your message.
Example: Say you’re researching how hypoxic ‘dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico have affected benthic communities. Your ‘ABT’ might look something like:
Large areas of low-oxygen water, resulting from agricultural runoff, appear in the Gulf of Mexico every summer AND can kill marine life that aren’t able to flee these ‘dead zones,’ BUT we don’t know which creatures are being affected, THEREFORE I am collecting samples from these ‘dead zones’ so we can better understand their impact on marine life in the Gulf.
This template takes your research and makes it into an easily digestible narrative. It tells people what’s happening, why it matters, and what you’re doing to research this problem or question. To learn more about Randy Olson’s science communication theories, watch his TED talk or read one of his books on the subject, such as “Houston, We Have Narrative” or “Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking.”
And finally -
Get some Practice!
First, find a friend, spouse, or family member. Grab them, apologize in advance, and practice explaining your research. Then ask for their feedback—what did they find interesting? Was anything confusing or boring? Ask them what, after hearing your explanation, they think your research is about. If they repeat your main messages, you’re golden. If not, it’s time for more brainstorming and practice.
Conveying technical information to nonscientists can be difficult, especially because what works best is very different from what works in a scientific setting. However, coming up with a communication strategy for your research—a combination of analogies, engaging messages, and personal anecdotes—will go a long way towards making your outreach successful. So get communicating!