28 May 2015
By Ilissa Ocko
The canonical rule of thumb for scientists speaking to nonscientists is to talk as if you were speaking to eighth graders, because a lay audience often has a basic, and certainly not specialized, understanding of science – about the same level as an eighth grader. If you want the information to resonate with the non-scientist audience, you have to strip down to the essentials, craft a story, provide big-picture context, and consider using analogies.
But as a scientist-audience member who has left many scientific talks dazed and confused, I would like to argue that scientists speaking to scientists should follow this rule as well.
Although a scientist audience is very familiar with high-level science, its members still face many of the same challenges as a lay audience. I’ve outlined three such challenges below. Any scientist speaker can easily circumvent these challenges using the eighth-grade audience approach during a conference presentation or department seminar setting, or similar. The speaker, too, will benefit from more effective knowledge transfer to his/her colleagues.
Here are the three challenges that a scientist audience faces, and how a speaker can evade them:
- This is almost always the first time the audience is hearing the information. Even in a room full of scientists, not everyone has the same background and expertise. Not only will the audience be unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the research, but even the bigger-picture implications may be lost among those who do not think about this problem on a daily basis. Because it is easy for a speaker to lose touch with how much others don’t know about their minute subfield, even what feels like a painful (and even embarrassing) oversimplification may be the perfect level for a scientist audience.
- The audience has only a small chunk of time to digest the information. The audience has limited time to process the material before they move onto something else (in some cases 12 minutes!) Ideally, the speaker will want people to remember the main punchline and its importance years later. So, the simpler the talk, the more engaging it can be, optimizing audience interest, comprehension, and retention.
- People are distracted by…life. Let’s be real, we are human. The audience may be distracted by academic concerns, like their own upcoming talks or research, the last talk they attended, or future talks on the agenda, but they are also distracted by the happenings of daily life. Simple thoughts like “Did I close the garage?” to serious thoughts like “I hope Grandma is feeling better” inundate our minds such that a small fraction is ultimately devoted to listening to a research talk. The more complex the talk, the easier it is to mentally check out. Speaker acknowledgement of this audience inadequacy through simpler messaging and slides will be a win-win for all.
Will every attendee struggle with these challenges? No way! I’ve met those rare unicorns with an uncanny ability to understand complex subjects within mere minutes. BUT, for every one scientific unicorn, there are 20 scientific horses like myself. So even though this approach may bore a few audience members, isn’t it worth it if everyone has the opportunity to understand your research, rather than just a select, special few? During the Q&A session, interested scientists have the opportunity to dive deeper into your work.
So try it out. Use less jargon, less math, less text, and less figures on each slide. Use more analogies, more graphics, and more background. Ground your work in something meaningful. Speak slowly, pause occasionally, and discuss the big picture.
—Ilissa Ocko is a climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, N.Y., where she specializes in communicating science to a diverse range of audiences. Ocko has a Ph.D. in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences from Princeton University.