Science would not be possible without communication. You have to use language, even if you didn’t get into STEM to write sonnets. So here are 15 simple tips for improving how you write and speak about your work:
Avoid the Alphabet Soup
It sucks when an OGP becomes NC because of UAs. Did you get that? Hm. What I meant to say was that it sucks when an Otherwise Good Paper becomes Needlessly Confusing because of Unnecessary Acronyms. And this isn’t just true for science writing targeted at the general public. A recent study found that academic papers that used less jargon (including acronyms) were cited more often by other scientists.
Use the Rule of Three. Use the Rule of Three. Use the Rule of Three.
There’s a reason Goldilocks didn’t stumble into a woodland manor housing seventeen bears with a wide variety of dietary needs and mattress firmness preferences. By framing your argument around three main points, you take advantage of the human brain’s natural affinity for concise patterns. Lists of three are catchy, memorable, and entertaining.
Don’t Get Stuck in the Dunning-Kruger Effect Valley
We’ve all met an over-confident amateur. You know, the guy who comes to one Zumba class and immediately wants to give you pointers on your merengue march. As your knowledge of a subject increases, so does your knowledge of your own limitations and blind spots. Unfortunately, after plummeting off the summit of Mount Know-it-All, many people stop sharing their insights. Someone will always know more than you, but don’t let that stop you from speaking up. (I only spent a few minutes looking at the Dunning-Kruger graph, so I’m extremely confident about this point.)
Skip Unnecessary Details
How many times have you heard grad students whisper to each other, “Wow, I wish that talk had been longer!” No? Almost everything on Earth could benefit from a good trim---from superhero movies to sideburns. Don’t bury your audience in soil types unless they need that information to understand your research. You can use a simple mantra: cut it and shut it.
Stand on the Shoulders of Giants
I didn’t come up with that. Isaac Newton did, and he wasn’t just trying to get his reflecting telescope closer to the stars. If you’re struggling to explain a concept, paraphrase someone who said it better (for all we know, Newton could have gotten it from someone else).
It’s Not all or Nothing
You don’t have to fully explain a topic. Partial explanations can still be valuable. I’d say more, but I need to move on to #7.
We’veallbeentoatalkwherethespeakersoundedlikethisthewholetime. It’s exhausting. Research shows that speaking at 100 words per minute produces optimal retention. And that’s way slower than you think. Practice, record yourself, and understand that If public speaking shoots your adrenaline up like an epi pen through the heart, you mayyyy havveee to fooooorce youuuuurself to speeeeeak suuuuper slowwww until you get the hang of it.
Speak their Language
Who, exactly, is your paper or talk or interpretive botany dance for? A group of college students might appreciate a meme, while a group of adjuncts might appreciate health insurance. Match your content to your target. And remember: the font size on your slides should match the average age of your audience. So none of those 300 word quantum computing slides in 10-point Times New Roman, unless the fourth graders are especially bright.
Bribe your Audience
Not individually, unless you have petrochemical industry funding. But if you have to explain something dry or complex, promise your audience a treat at the end, like a fun fact or cute video. Here’s an example: if you finish reading this blog post about effective science communications, I’ll show you a photo of a seagull using a pig as a water taxi.
Metaphors are Potent Elixirs
Metaphors can help your audience leap across the gap between confusion and understanding. See what I just did? Metaphors can be useful for conveying difficult concepts, especially to non-experts. So, maybe T-cells are mercenaries. Or the second law of thermodynamics describes a teenager’s bedroom. Or happy hour at an engineering conference is like a Serengeti watering hole, but with more bloodshed. But don’t go overboard, lest you find yourself swimming in the depths of literary obscurity, attacked by analogy squids and creatures like simile fish.
Start with a Joke
A great joke can connect you to an audience like nothing else. For example: How many electrical engineers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: maybe we’ll find out some day after they stop telling us about how Edison actually stole most of his best ideas from Tesla. And let’s be real, who else is going to laugh at your niche spectrometry wordplay? Look at that. The scintillation detector just spiked.
Keep them Guessing
Whenever you have to show a long list of facts, throw in something absurd as your last item. This can keep your audience engaged, surprise them, boost their adrenaline, and turn their eyes purple. Seriously, surprises boost adrenaline and adrenaline enhances memory.
I’m about to give you a simple three-step process for helping your audience retain information. It’s (deliciously) called the “information hamburger”. It’s simple:
you tell the audience what you’re going to tell them
you tell them that information
you tell them what you told them
And that’s it! I’ve just given you an easy and effective three-step science communications technique. Can you see me winking at you?
Take Your Message Seriously, Don’t Take Yourself Seriously
You may have spent decades in school and you may have collected a good amount of letters after your name. You may have invented life-saving technologies or discovered life on another planet. But if you accidentally fart, it’s funny regardless of how many Nobel prizes you own. There’s something inherently egalitarian about being human. As Marie Curie once said, “everybody poops.”
Use weird visuals
Using wild visuals can make your presentation or paper more memorable. For instance, one research team used a hypothetical zombie apocalypse to explore epidemiological modeling. The weirder your work is, the more memorable it will be.
And finally… I promised you this:
Worth the wait, huh?