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Speaking Science: Five Tips for Talking about Your Work

Notes from the Speaking Science conference

One of several graphic recordings created during the Speaking Science conference by A Visual Spark.

The word “science” is a broad term, but when it comes to communicating with others, it often means “complicated information that many people don’t understand.”

Earlier this month, the University of Minnesota hosted a conference designed to help scientists more effectively share their knowledge and research with the audiences outside of academia. Speaking Science: Communicating with Media, Funders, Policymakers, and the Public brought more than 400 faculty, post-doctoral researchers, and graduate students together to hone their communication and storytelling skills.

The one-day, sold-out event attracted a large audience from across scientific disciplines at the University. It featured interactive training exercises, break-out sessions, and a keynote presentation by New York Times science columnist Carl Zimmer.

For those who couldn’t make it to the event or would like a refresher, here are five tips on speaking about science:

1. Focus on the Point

It may feel natural to discuss your research the way you would write for an academic journal—starting with background information, then filling in the details and methodology, and finally discussing the results and conclusions.

That approach doesn’t work so well for a general audience. Before you dive into the details, people want to know the main point and how it affects them or their environment. Think about the one key thing you want to the audience to know before you start talking, and then stick to it. Emphasize what it means and why it matters.

For practice in finding the main point, try turning the title of your latest published research into a news headline. Replace complex words with ones that are more accessible, keep it concise, and capture the one main point from your study’s findings.

2. Know Your Audience, Stow Your Jargon

One hazard that all experts must avoid is assuming people have the necessary background information and experience to understand what they say.

Taking steps to avoid this pitfall will help you communicate more effectively. Consider who you’re trying to reach and what they may or may not already know about the subject. Remember that the last time most people had to actively think about scientific concepts was in high school. Check in with your audience from time to time to see if they understand.

Think of jargon—the terms specific to your field that aren’t used in the same way (or at all) in nonscientific conversation—as a roadblock to good communication. Your audience probably doesn’t know these words. It’s not because they lack intelligence, but because they rarely need to discuss the concepts these terms describe. Find ways to replace the jargon with plain language.

Keep in mind that words you use every day may mean something different in the scientific community than they do to your audience. The word “theory,” may mean “scientific understanding” when you use it, but most people think it means a “hunch”—and there’s a big difference between those two. See the chart in this Physics Today article for more examples.

3. Don’t Curb Your Enthusiasm

Communication works best when you form a connection with your audience. Embrace your enthusiasm as you speak about your science. What makes you passionate about it? What fascinates, amazes, or alarms you?

Talk to your audience the way you would talk to a neighbor. Pull their attention in with eye contact, gestures, and laughter (when appropriate). Tell stories, especially ones that may link to experiences your audience has had, and draw analogies between complex concepts and more familiar things. Illustrate your point through pictures, videos, and models when possible.

All of these strategies will build your audience’s comfort with your science and help them to understand it better.

4. Avoid Factual Overload

Focus on what’s relevant to the current discussion and make sure everything you say backs up your main point. Avoid speaking too broadly or providing too many facts at once.

Remember that when an audience doesn’t understand or doesn’t agree with your main point, barraging them with more supporting facts can be like adding water to a leaky bucket. Additional information will further fluster those who are already confused and make skeptics more liable to reject your expertise. Instead, revisit your earlier points and work to clear up doubts or questions.

Remember, the Internet makes it easy to find alternative explanations—scientific or not—to any theory or finding. People who are staunchly opposed to scientific claims aren’t likely to be swayed by your supporting evidence.

5. Be Confident—You’re the Expert

It’s normal to be a little nervous when speaking to a new audience, especially if that involves being on camera. Remember to breathe and relax. You are the expert in this conversation—draw confidence from that fact and speak with authority.

Along the same lines, if your audience seems to focus on something trivial or unrelated, make sure to guide them back to the main point. It’s your interview and your opportunity to relate what you know. Don’t hesitate to take control of it and emphasize what’s really important.

Thank you to the following conference speakers, whose talks were the source of the tips in this post:

  • David Gillette, special correspondent for Twin Cities Public Television
  • Maggie Koerth-Baker, senior science editor at FiveThirtyEight
  • Kristi Kremers, Boreas Leadership Program director at the U of M Institute on the Environment
  • James Rea, communications coach with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
  • Don Shelby, investigative journalist formerly of WCCO
  • Carl Zimmer, science columnist with the New York Times
Kevin Coss

Kevin Coss

Kevin is a writer and public relations associate with the Office of the Vice President for Research.

coss@umn.edu

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