A Practical Guide to Communicating with Non-Scientists

by Helen Pilcher

Prepared for SIGCHI April 2019

Researchers are increasingly called upon to communicate with non-specialist audiences, but it can be difficult to present complex scientific topics in a way that makes them accessible and engaging to people outside the field. This guide offers advice on how to communicate with non-scientists. If you’re planning a public presentation, talking to the media, writing an engaging blog, making a TV or radio appearance, penning an opinion piece or any other form of communication, then this is for you. The guidance is deliberately wide-ranging and can be applied across the board.

The first half of this guide offers practical advice on how to get your key messages across, how to simplify and clarify complicated ideas, how to approach jargon, and how to use storytelling as a powerful communication tool. The second half focuses on the media. It offers strategies for those who want to get their research noticed, and offers tips on interview skills and how to communicate effectively with members of the media.

Part 1: Communication Skills

The Three W’s…

Successful science communication isn’t about telling the audience what you think they should know. It’s about recognising and responding to the audience’s interests, and then meshing their interests with yours. A good way to approach any communication is to start with the three W’s. The three W’s are as follows:

1 Who are my audience?

When scientists are preparing a talk ‘for the public,’ it’s easy to treat ‘the public’ as some huge, undifferentiated mass. It’s not. Imagine preparing a HCI talk for a group of interested adults in a pub. Pint of Science and Café Scientifique run events like this.  Now imagine preparing the same talk for a group of primary school children, or writing it up as a feature for New Scientist magazine. The target audiences are different. No two public audiences are ever the same, so it’s important to determine who you are communicating with. When you have done this, you are ready to move on to the second W.

2 Why is my audience here?

Think about the audience’s motivations for listening to you. Why are they here? Is it because they want to learn something? Learning may be part of the story but additional reasons might include curiosity, reassurance, an opportunity for debate or a chance to see how public money is being spent.  Motivations will differ between individuals but there is always one common, shared goal. No one wants to be bored and everyone wants to be entertained.

Successful communicators try to meet the expectations of their audiences. It’s important to realise that often your motivations for speaking will differ from the audience’s motivations for listening. Scientists often talk about the importance of sharing their passions, of busting stereotypes and increasing the levels of scientific literacy. Although these are valuable goals, they don’t often feature high on an audience’s list of priorities. Audiences don’t want to be lectured. That’s what universities are for. So try to have fun, and be entertaining.

3 What are you going to say?

Hot on the heels of identifying your audience and their needs, you can now start planning your content. There are a number of different ‘what’s.’

Start by asking yourself what would your audience want to know? What questions would they ask? What angles would they find interesting? As a general rule, people tend to be less interested in how science works, and more interested in how it relates to society. So be prepared to talk about the cultural and societal repercussions of your research.

Then ask yourself, what is my key message? If the audience were to walk away with one key idea in their heads, what would it be? Now you need to structure you content to incorporate all of these ‘what’s…’

A word on explanations

It’s important to pitch your explanations at the right level. A useful analogy is to think that ideas can exist at different concentrations. They can be more or less concentrated. So the ‘cloud’ could be ‘an abstract place where digital information lives,’ or it could be ‘a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet that store, manage and process data.’ The first explanation is more dilute, and the second is more concentrated. Neither is wrong, they just feature different amounts of information.

Take care never to underestimate your audience. A common mistake is overestimate what people know and underestimate how clever they are. It’s ok to presume that people know nothing, but it’s not ok to presume they are stupid. Anyone can understand complicated and abstract ideas if they are explained well. This is your job. You should adjust the concentration of your explanations to suit your audience, and remember; you will never hear an audience moan that an explanation is too easy, but they will complain if it is too difficult.

Abstract concepts can be hard to grasp, so also think about using analogies and word pictures. Imagery is a powerful and much-overlooked tool of communication. Augmented reality is an abstract concept, but imagine a car where the satnav is superimposed onto the windscreen. This visual example makes the concept more accessible.

A word on language

When scientists talk about their work they often use scientific terminology. If you are communicating with your peers this can be useful, but non-scientists (and experts from different fields) can find this sort of language alienating and inaccessible.

It’s your job to challenge this jargon, and recognise that terms that are instantly understandable to one audience, may be instantly off-putting to another. For example, the meaning of words like ‘algorithm,’ ‘cloud,’ big data’ and ‘social network’ is not obvious to everyone. Try to avoid jargon, but if you feel that a term needs to be included then make sure you explain it at the appropriate ‘concentration.’

It’s entirely possible to explain complicated ideas using simple language. For an extreme example of this, look at the ‘Up-Goer Five Text Editor.’ This website challenges the reader to explain hard ideas using only the 1000 most used words in the English language. It even includes a section on scientific explanations. Of course, in the real world we’re not limited like this, but if you want to deliver your message successfully, it’s still important to use simple words and plain language. Simplicity brings clarity.

A word on PowerPoint

Scientists rely heavily on PowerPoint when they deliver presentations. This is ok in an academic setting, where people are genuinely interested in graphs, statistics and standard error bars, but do not presume that all audiences are similarly forgiving. Very often, people cram too much information into a single slide which they then talk over and never refer to directly. This is a serious faux pas.

There are some good reasons for using PowerPoint, but none of them is ‘to show the audience loads of stuff.’ It can be a useful memory aid. If you show a photograph or video, it can add depth and colour to your content. It’s also a useful way to signpost to an audience that you have finished talking about one thing, and are moving on to the next.

If you must use PowerPoint, then keep the number of slides to a minimum; around 3 slides for every 5 minutes. Keep the content simple. Avoid bullet points, graphs, complicated diagrams, but do use photos, pictures and simple graphics. Then always explain anything you show on screen. Your slides should complement your content, rather than distract from it.

A word on structure and storytelling

Scientific papers, posters and talks tend to be written in a very structured way. They’re often presented in the third person (“it was found that”), and have a clearly defined structure; from ‘Abstract’ and ‘Introduction’ through to ‘Discussion’ and ‘Conclusion.’  This is standard for an academic audience, but the approach lacks warmth, empathy, personality and drama. There’s not much to hook a non-scientific audience. In recent years, there has been a growing appreciation of the value of storytelling. So instead of bombarding an audience with facts; tell them a story instead.

Why should researchers tell stories?  

Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. We are natural storytellers. We don’t process the world as a string of facts; instead we construct narratives that help us make sense of what’s going on. From Gilgamesh to Guardians of the Galaxy, stories are a powerful form of communication that spans all ages and cultures.

Stories inform, illuminate and inspire. Storytelling is a way to transfer ideas, engage people, and connect with others on an emotional level. Storytelling creates a sense of intimacy that is poles apart from the academic model of communication. This can make scientists and their research more appealing and accessible. Research has shown that audiences find narratives more engaging and easier to understand that traditional logic-based science communication. In addition, when people make decisions, they use more than logic and evidence. So because there’s an emotional component to storytelling, stories can be used as a tool of persuasion. Furthermore, we remember stories better than bullet points, lists, data and statistics. On their own, facts are forgettable, but stories are sticky. When science is framed as a narrative, it becomes instantly more memorable, and who doesn’t like to listen to a story? Science is full stories. The challenge is figuring out how to tell them.

What makes a good story?

The word ‘story’ is used in different ways. Most people think of stories as works of fiction, but they can also be about the real world. For example, journalists tell stories when they tell us the news. So here, we’re talking about storytelling in the wider sense of constructing a narrative to convey ideas.

Good stories share common elements. These include:

  • Characters – Heroes and villains. Someone or thing the audience can relate to.
  • A challenge – there will be a quest, journey, challenge or problem.
  • Conflict – there will be some sort of obstacle.
  • A setting or context in which the action takes place.
  • Suspense and surprise.
  • Enough detail to help us imagine the story.
  • A clear line of action. A good story is not just a set of happenings or a collection of descriptions. It’s a route of your choosing, with a beginning, middle and end.

How to put it all together?

You’ve worked your way through the three W’s. You know who your audience are, and you’ve thought about why they are interested in what you have to say. You’ve thought about the key messages that you want to deliver. Now you are going to create a story that will help you to weave these different interests together. It will contain characters, conflict, and a clear beginning, middle and end. It will prioritise narrative over data, logic and evidence. It will almost certainly contain sub-stories and anecdotes. It will connect with audience on an emotional level, and it will let your passion for your message shine through.  And if you need more inspiration….

Here are a couple of examples of people who tell stories well:

1 Steve Job’s 2007 iPhone launch – no one tells a story quite like Steve Jobs. This classic pitch starts with a challenge then takes the audience on a journey through various difficulties before arriving at a satisfying resolution.

2 Scott Klemmer’s ‘The Age of Magic’ – in this YouTube talk we meet Mike and Kevin; the guys who created Instagram.

3 Timandra Harkness’s ‘Big Data: Does Size Matter’ – Read the introduction to this highly accessible book and you’ll see how Timandra explains Big Data by telling us a story about a wolf bone.

Part 2: Dealing with the Media

The media is immensely powerful. It plays a key role in shaping public opinion, which in turn plays a key role in shaping government policy. In this digital age, information spreads rapidly. If you’re a researcher with an interesting new study, the media can help you to reach the masses and raise your profile, but it’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes, findings can become distorted and misinformation can ricochet around the Internet. It’s important to nurture a good relationship with members of the media, so that you can positively influence this space and reap the rewards of the media’s long reach.

How to get your research noticed by the media

1 Press Releases

The best way to get noticed by the media is to write a press release. A press release is a short, pithy summary that explains what your research is and why it’s important. They are distributed to the media under embargo, which gives journalists time to research and report their stories. Everyone then publishes their story at the same predetermined time when the embargo lifts.

Most research institutions and academic journals have a dedicated media team, who will write the press release in collaboration with the researchers. You can help them by providing a non-academic, lay summary of your research, colourful quotes, and additional resources like high-resolution images and videos.

EurekAlert provides a comprehensive, but not exhaustive, list of press releases and once the embargo lifts, they are accessible to all.

2 Nurture contacts with members of the media

Journalists are always looking for good stories, so keep in touch with any that you meet, and then email them when you have a new piece of research coming out. Journalists love nothing more than being spoon-fed an exclusive story, but remember that it has to be timely, genuinely new and of interest to their specific audience.

3 Be visible

Make yourself visible and easy to find by having an active web presence. Blogging, vlogging and being generally active on social media are all good ways of raising your profile. Ensure that your webpage or university profile is written so that it is available to the masses, rather than the scientifically-literate few. The way you promote yourself is a reflection of your communication skills, and it helps journalists to gauge whether or not you are a useful contact to have.

A number of organisations and websites provide lists of experts to members of the media. Eg Expert Guide, Scimex and the Science Media Centre. You can sign up with these, although many journalists side step them and collate their own list of contacts.

How to nail a media interview

1 Before the interview

Engineer a convenient time:  

If a journalist calls and wants you to talk ‘now,’ ask when their deadline is and arrange a mutually convenient time to chat. Buy yourself some preparation time. Even a short delay of 10 minutes will give you enough time to collect your thoughts, and prepare what you want to say.  Make sure you ask the journalist what they would like to interview you about, how long the interview will be, and who their target audience is. This will help you to gauge the length, content and style of your answers.

Preparation:

Make a list of the key points you would like to make then prioritise them in order of importance. Remember that less is more. A few clear key points will be far more memorable and impactful than a long, meandering agenda.

Think about how you will explain these key points. It’s a journalist’s job to translate complex ideas into easy-to-grasp alternatives, but you can help them by making sure that your explanations are clear and geared at a level that is appropriate for the intended audience.

2 During the interview:

Playing tennis:

Now it’s time to get your key points out there. Keep a clear head and go into the interview knowing that you will incorporate your key points. The way to do this is by steering the conversation. Think of it as a game of tennis. The journalist serves you the first ball, which you must return, but you will also guide the ball to where you want it to go. You will answer the journalist’s questions directly, but you will also lead the conversation in a direction that lets you talk about your key points.

Dealing with curved balls:

If you receive a curved ball in the form of a question that is unexpected or difficult, don’t be fazed. Have a go. Alternatively, it’s ok to use phrases like, ‘I’m not sure how relevant that is’ or ‘That’s not really my area of expertise,’ but don’t stop there. Follow these disclaimers with something that is relevant. Guide the conversation back towards your key points. A good journalist will pick up on these cues, and be led by you. In most cases, they won’t mind if you don’t answer a question directly. They just want you to be interesting.

Be dazzlingly brilliant but accessibly down to earth:

Remember that journalists are looking for one or more of the following; opinion, information, explanations and soundbites. Resist the temptation to slip into the familiar language of academia as it can add unnecessary layers of complication. Strive to be both dazzlingly brilliant and accessibly down to earth.

Pace Yourself:

We talk more quickly when we are under pressure. Don’t try and say everything in a rush, and don’t monopolise the conversation. Pace your responses. Think of it like hammering in nails. You need to aim carefully, and accurately knock in one nail at a time, before moving on to the next.

Off the record and proof reading:

Never tell a member of the media something ‘off the record’ unless you are prepared for the information to go public. Although many journalists will respect your confidentiality, many more will not. It’s their job to source stories that no one else has, so a ‘scoop’ will sometimes trump a personal relationship with a researcher.

You can ask a journalist to proof-read a copy of their story, but expect them to say no. Journalists work to tight deadlines, so it’s very rare they have the time to share their writing with their sources. In the unlikely event that you are given a proof-reading opportunity, do not re-write or edit the article. Instead, check it for factual accuracy only.

3 After the interview

Let it go:

In the words of the world’s most annoying song, ‘let it go, let it go.’ You are not responsible for the output that follows your interview. Unless you have been slandered or grossly misrepresented (which is unlikely), there is little in the way of recourse. From time to time, the media do get their facts wrong. Research can become distorted and hyped. You can only do your best to positively influence the story’s genesis and minimise the chances of this happening.

Watch and learn:

Learn from your media experiences. Interview skills improve through practice, so reflect on the process and think what you could do differently next time. Don’t be too negative or hard on yourself. We teach our children that it’s ok to learn new things by trying them. Adult learning is no different. You are to be congratulated for trying, and should feel positive that you gave it a go.