To be a good scientist, you need to be a good communicator. But how do you do this for non-specialist audiences? Here are our top ten tips for impactful science communication.
There are plenty of scenarios where scientists are required to communicate their work to non-specialist audiences. You may want to build public support for science, encourage more informed decision-making by governments, funders, communities, and individuals, or educate others.
By communicating effectively, you might secure funding, write more impactful research papers, be offered an exciting job or opportunity, or become a more inspiring teacher and mentor for the next generation of scientists.
As long as you are not breaking confidentiality or giving away industrial secrets, your colleagues and peers will back you in communicating your research to others. However, explaining your work to someone other than a close collaborator or supervisor will be most successful if you consider our suggestions.
Effective communication will clearly, succinctly, and persuasively relay the most important information in a way that’s easy for the audience to understand. Here are our top tips for doing just that.
- Consider your audience
Who are the people you want (or need) to explain your research to? Your audience will determine what information is the most relevant, and how it should be conveyed. For example, your peers might be most interested in whether your work could lead to future collaborations, while the media will want to know what makes your work unique and important, and how it affects the lives of the public and their readers or viewers.
Researchers are trained to give a lot of background information and detail before outlining the results of a study. However, for non-specialist audiences such as the media, policymakers and the public, this approach needs to be flipped. You should start with a concise summary of what you found, explain why this is important, and then provide supporting evidence of how you did it and what’s next.
- Keep it simple
Avoid jargon and keep your language simple and accessible. How much you simplify your work will depend on your audience. An abstract or a conference talk is directed to your closest research peers, already familiar with your particular field of research. A lay abstract will address a slightly wider, yet still scientifically-interested group, while a magazine article or a snippet on the radio will reach a much wider public but with little specialist knowledge of research findings. It’s important to remember that the wider public might have expertise in the form of lived experience which will inform their perspective on your research.
When moving to wider audiences, language must expand in response. Concepts that could be explained to a colleague with four words no longer work and one needs to be more creative with language. Clarity and simplicity are essential now and acronyms better forgotten, but you should remember to always respect your audience and never dumb things down unnecessarily.
- Be open and relatable
Use analogies and metaphors in your explanations to make complex ideas more accessible. You can also use storytelling to humanise your work, connect with your audience on a more personal level, and be more memorable.
If you are delivering a talk, you can ask the audience questions throughout your presentation to keep them engaged. It is also a good idea to leave time at the end for a question-and-answer segment, to provide some dedicated time for dialogue.
- Use the three-point rule
The rule of three is often used to make sentences or phrases more memorable. You can incorporate this rule when communicating about your work, such as by outlining three issues your research aims to address, three key takeaways from your work, or three recommendations for policymakers.
While you don’t need to restrict yourself to just these three points, you can use them as an anchor for your communication, to help the audience stay on track. There’s a good chance that these three points will leave the most lasting impression with your audience.
- Explain your process
While you will need to think carefully about how much detail you go into, depending on your audience and their familiarity with your subject, explaining how you reached your conclusions is important.
This is particularly valuable if your findings are inconclusive – if your audience grasps the fundamentals of your research process, they will be able to better understand and trust your findings.
- Be honest and transparent
Leading on from the previous point, trust is crucial. If you want to be seen as a credible source, you need to be open with your audience about what you do and don’t know. You should show the range of evidence you have come across, rather than just the evidence that supports your argument, and admit when you don’t have all the answers.
- Link back to the bigger picture
Relate your findings back to the bigger picture to help your audience understand why your research is important. This could be the bigger problem that your research relates to, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, or mental health, or how your research is relevant to the lives of the individuals you are communicating with. You should tailor this ‘bigger picture’ to your audience and what they are most likely to be interested in and motivated by.
- Add visuals
Another way to make your research more easily digestible and compelling is through using visuals. This could include photography, graphs, and graphics that illustrate your process, findings, and recommendations in a more concise and even entertaining way. Just be careful not to make your graphs or graphics too crowded or complicated.
Remember – visuals should make your work easier to understand, not harder!
- Engage with the media
While engaging with the media may seem daunting, it can be a great way to get your work out there and even lead to new opportunities. Remember to stick to your area of expertise, admit when you don’t know the answer to a question, and be clear about your boundaries on what you will and will not answer.
The Academy of Medical Sciences runs a programme dedicated to supporting women in research to engage more confidently and effectively with the media – find out more here.
- Use social media
Social media has become a valuable tool for science and research communication. Twitter is often used by journalists to find new stories, and both Twitter and LinkedIn are often used by those in scientific and academic fields to build connections with their peers and widen their network.
How to be a good science communicator | Nature Medicine
10 Tips for Effective Science Communication | Northeastern University
Effective Communication, Better Science | Scientific American Blog Network
What does research say about how to effectively communicate about science? | The Conversation
12 examples of stunning science communication | Shorthand
9 Tips For Communicating Science To People Who Are Not Scientists | Forbes
The 3 Essential Rules For Effective Science Communication | Forbes