Be understandable and relevant – and realistic

A cartoon of man speaking to a woman through a loudspeaker in technical language she finds overwhelming

Source: © Harry Haysom/Ikon Images

You’re not necessarily communicating your work just by talking about it

Several years ago, I was sitting in the office of the Dean of Studies with some fellow undergrad students. We had complained about the loveless way some professors handled their teaching duties. The situation got so bad that most students turned to teaching themselves, with as few as two out of 80 students attending some lectures and seminars. The Dean had a peculiar way of comforting us: ‘It doesn’t matter what we teach you; it doesn’t matter what you learn here; in the end, you will have the great name of our university on your CV, and that will get you a job.’ More than 20% of the students left for another university at the end of the semester.

In these bad old days, teaching and science communication were used first and foremost to promote one’s status. For the Dean, it didn’t even matter if we students understood what was taught. Luckily, we’re well past that point, with many scientists achieving decent levels of understandability in their seminars and presentations. Today, they try to anticipate their audience’s prior knowledge and experience and adapt their messages accordingly. Where appropriate, they use metaphors and analogies to build a bridge for the audience. They try not to clutter slides with superfluous effects, decorating images and excessive amounts of data.

Is it enough to be understandable? I thought so when I tried my luck at an outreach activity for the first time. I joined the Edinburgh Science Festival, being one of six scientists on stage with Dr Bunhead, the MTV scientist of the day. The audience was a group of 150 schoolkids aged eight to 12. Dr Bunhead prepared us for the event, telling us what questions to expect and how to discuss our science. I put quite some effort into my preparations, coming up with a 3D prop of the molecular machine I was building during my postdoc and meeting with Dr Bunhead to reflect on my ideas. At the end of the show, Dr Bunhead asked the crowd, ‘Hands up: who liked scientist A the best? And what about scientist B?’ When he reached me, not a single hand went up – a humiliating moment.

I thought back on this episode several times as I moved into a career in science communication. Eventually, the scales fell from my eyes; I realised why I failed so miserably to catch the kids’ interest. I didn’t show the relevance of my work, plain and simple.

For a scientist, why we do our work is all too clear. Not so for just about anyone else. During my postdoc, producing the first-ever semi-autonomous molecular synthesiser was central to my life, so I didn’t need anyone to tell me about its relevance. For my audience, I was just a nerd who stirred transparent liquids and looked into unintelligible data all day.

Relevance and understandability are not enough to be truly persuasive

You can do a simple field experiment to learn how scientists emphasise the relevance of their work (or not): at your next conference, go to a poster that is not from your core field and ask, ‘Looks interesting. Could you please walk me through your poster?’ In many cases, you will be flooded with lots of minute details without learning about the relevance of the work at hand. If you are prone to presenting like this, asking a simple question before the poster pitch can help wonders: ‘What´s your background?’ This will prime you to transform a lengthy monologue into an adapted dialogue. 

But even relevance and understandability are not enough to be truly persuasive, especially when scientists enter controversial debates. We often get frustrated when we can’t convince an audience of our viewpoint – after all, it’s the scientifically proven one, right?

Imagine having a discussion with a vaccine-sceptic who refuses to get the Covid vaccine because they think the side effects of mRNA vaccines has been under-researched. They admit the vaccine works in principle. At this point, you’re at a crossroads. You could become judgmental, calling them an immunological free-rider. You could also accept their concerns, yet still achieve a decent outcome.

It´s unrealistic to expect them to rush to their phone to make a vaccination appointment straight after that conversation. However, you might convince them that other people getting vaccinated protects them. You could stop them bad-mouthing vaccinations to their friends and family, which could ultimately have a much more significant effect than if they themselves got vaccinated.

When communicating science, be understandable and relevant to your specific audience and realistic and tactical about the nudges you can give in a controversial debate. Otherwise, your efforts might lead to misunderstanding, disinterest and disengagement.