How to Communicate Complex Science to the Public

Marketing, Science 2017-05-12

Scientific research is moving faster than ever before, leading to ground-breaking discoveries moving from the lab to our everyday lives quicker with each new breakthrough. Innovative science is now such an important part of the world we live in, that it is crucial for the public to be able to understand the science behind these discoveries. For example, the cutting-edge of science is often surrounded by debates due to ethical implications, complex benefits and risks. Therefore, to take an active role in these discussions and make informed decisions, consumers need to be educated in a way they can understand.

However, until recently, scientists were not trained to communicate their science effectively to the public. Published papers communicating the latest in scientific research focus heavily on accuracy of information and high levels of detail, so much so that in some cases they would require a translator to make sense of.

So how do you go about communicating these complex subjects to the public when they are hard enough to convey to a trained scientist?

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1. Know your audience

Number one and by far the most important. Know and define whom you are talking to. How old are they? What is their previous education? What are their interests or life experiences? These are all important factors to consider when communicating science and when applying the next seven pieces of advice. A 10 year old at school, a college-educated 50-year-old and a high-school educated 30-year-old are all very different audiences and will require a different tactic to reach them. Use the first person – talk to them as a human not as a ‘scientist’, because what you are talking about affects everyone.

2. Talk to them as an individual

Once you know who your audience is, talk to them. I recommend using the first person as much as possible when communicating to the public in general, but especially when trying to educate. Half the battle with communicating complex subjects is engaging the audience, and the first person lends itself to this well.

3. Tell the story

When conveying anything, not just science, it is most engaging to do this as a story. Have a clear beginning, middle and end. Think about how to set the scene, get into the ‘whys’ before the ‘hows’. This way you will engage the reader and keep them interested as one point clearly and simply leads on to the next. Don’t delve into the nitty-gritty too early (or at all if it isn’t relevant), as you will defeat the whole point of trying to tell the story.

4. Make it relevant

The truth is, as interesting as you might find this area of science, the public won’t care about the story unless it has a relevant impact. The good thing is that science will inevitably have an impact on everyone in some way; you just have to find it. Start your story with an experience/event/feeling that they can identify with and go from there. I find it useful to start with the big picture, what is the end goal of this research?

5. Show and tell

We all know that a picture is worth 1000 words, but what is important is that those 1000 words are in a language everyone on the planet can understand. Whether your audience has previous knowledge of science or none at all, illustrating your point with an image/diagram will always help.

6. Analogise

If you cannot find a suitable image, or you are trying to explain a concept, then you can paint a picture in the imagination of your audience. Analogies and examples go a long way to making a complex concept easy to understand. Talking about a nucleus doesn’t mean a lot to many but the “brain of a cell” explains it well. Even if it is not 100% accurate it gets across your point without confusing the reader. Which leads me on to…

7. Let the little things go

The process of simplifying a complex scientific concept can be a painful process to those that have deep and detailed knowledge of the subject. The nucleus is not the brain of the cell. It’s just not and I understand why that annoys cell biologists and neuroscientists alike. A nucleus has no conscience, can’t think and isn’t structurally comparable to a central nervous system in any way. But it’s a good enough comparison if you are trying to convey that it controls the cell.

My advice (that may be easier said than done) is to let the little things slide and resist the urge to explain too much too soon. No analogy will be perfect, but try not to criticise one that gets across the point. Who knows, if you really engage a reader they may go on to learn more about the subject and discover the details themselves.

8. Leave the politics aside

Science is very often the subject of political, ethical and religious debates. For a lay audience, it can be even more difficult to isolate fact from opinion. So it is up to scientists to either make the differentiation clear or to remove opinion from it altogether. My opinion is that it is up to science communicators to convey the facts and discuss the amazing job that science has done to achieve these breakthroughs. It is the job of political commentators, ethical debaters and even the philosophers to argue whether it is right or wrong. By all means give an opinion, but make sure your audience know that is what it is.

So that is it for my top tips on how to communicate your science. Let me know if you found this helpful, and if you have any tips that you would add Tweet me @GabyAtNotch.