How to Communicate Research to Non-academics
Ain’t nobody got time to read your dissertation
Hey PhDs, are you writing for an audience other than your fellow academics? This could be an article, a blog post, a resume, a presentation, or even just an email.
If you’ve ever tried to explain your work to a layman (read: not a nerd), you might be apprehensive about doing it again. They just don’t seem to get it, right?
No matter how clearly you explain the intricacies of your topic, their eyes tend to do all sorts of funny things like glazing over, rolling uncontrollably, or becoming heavy-lidded.
Here’s the problem: When you think “they just don’t get it…”
You’re blaming the victim
It’s not realistic that everybody in the world is too stupid to understand you. You are neck-deep in a weird universe populated by a few dozen people at most, and you’re speaking a different language than your audience.
It’s your job to translate your deep knowledge into words that the rest of the world can understand.
This is honestly hard! You may have seen this done poorly, where someone who is not an expert in something tries to summarize it in simple terms and your reaction is “That’s wrong.”
But you should know it’s possible to do it well. Let’s take a look at a few publicly vocal scientists. We have Niel Degrasse Tyson. Famous astrophysicist. Is he the best or smartest astrophysicist? I have no idea. But he communicates basic to cutting-edge physics knowledge in a way that literal children can understand.
Then we have Anthony Fauci. He’s the only immunologist most people can name. And he’s famous largely because of his former connection to the White House. But if you watch him talk, he can communicate medical information to politicians, many of whom are unable or unwilling to have an intelligent conversation about the topic on their own.
In case you’re thinking that non-academic science communication is “dumbing down” the “real science,” consider that it takes a greater understanding of a subject to effectively teach it to a 5-year-old than it does to teach it to someone who has a PhD in the domain.
A necessary mindset shift: focus on motivations
There are a few key changes in how you think about communicating that are required to shift from scientific to general writing. The key difference behind all of these shifts is that you need to seriously consider two things:
Your purpose for communicating in the first place
The reasons your audience is listening to or reading your stuff
The reasons for writing any academic paper are straightforward: You want to convince experts that a new piece of information is believable and that you’ve covered all your bases in case reviewer #2 is feeling feisty.
Your expert audience tends to be PhDs who want to know the little details so they can evaluate whether or not you’re full of shit, and potentially take on extending or replicating your work.
What about a general audience?
You might have several motivations for communicating. Maybe you want people to know your work. Maybe you want to improve people’s lives or convince other people to do something.
What does your audience want?
In almost every case, they want to know 1–3 things that are relevant to them and what they are supposed to do with that information.
In some cases, they might wonder why they should believe you. Depending on the situation, you might have to give them a reason to pay attention at all.
There are a lot of things to pick apart about this difference in motivations, and I’ll frame them as key pieces of advice as you craft your communication style.
Get to the point
If I had to choose a single principle to share with you, it would be this one. Your general audience, almost no matter who they are, has limited time, attention, and motivation to give to you. Make sure you communicate the most important information as quickly as you can.
You’re trained to give a lot of background information, context, reasoning, and frankly irrelevant details before you get to the crescendo of your masterpiece. Skip as much of that as you can and communicate your big idea before boredom sets in.
If you’re reading this right now, it means I’ve succeeded at this part at the very least.
This is something journalists are trained to do. They may have a complex topic to cover, but they have to make sure they write using the BLUF method: Bottom-Line Up Front. Headlines come first, then supporting evidence.
You have to make sure people know what your main point is before you start peppering them with the context, data points, reasoning, etc. Sometimes, the main point is all your audience has time for, and it’s up to you to communicate it in a compelling enough way that they believe you.
Answer the “So what?”
A key indicator that you have failed is if you finish your spiel, and someone tentatively raises their hand and asks why they should care.
As a deep expert, you are probably five steps ahead in terms of the logic behind what you’re saying. “Well, we found A, which means that B is true, unless it’s C situation in which case D becomes a universal law meaning that everyone should E unless you’re in F situation in which case you should G.”
If this is your message, the “so what” doesn’t show up until E.
It feels wrong to flip the order like you’re just throwing advice at people without any sort of data. But in the real world data comes second. The take-home message comes first.
If they believe your main point, that’s the end of the interaction! If not, they’ll hopefully stick around for the data points that you present later in support of your main point.
This one is simple and is a great practice for any writer. First, write your message/article/speech however you want. Then, go through and delete 50–75% of it while retaining the important ideas. Does it still work?
Great, you didn’t need most of what you wrote to begin with.
One bad habit that academia teaches you is that more is better. Slathering on more details, more data points, more arguments and counter-narratives until you have exhausted the topic. Guess what else is exhausted? The audience.
Simplicity is clear. Simplicity is beautiful. And simplicity makes the information stick so much better than complexity.
Conversational language, not jargon
Use words no one has to Google. If you have a technical term you’re forced to use, explain it and find a simpler alternative to reference it if you can.
I once had a mentor who told me to avoid writing like an “Old Fogey.” I had to look that one up, but the advice is sound. It has nothing to do with age, and everything to do with the words you choose.
If you utilize words instead of using them, masticate your food instead of chewing it, and solve conundrums instead of problems, you might come off like an asshole who is trying to sound smart and probably overcompensating.
Or you’ll sound like an egghead who can’t function outside of a lab.
PhDs love them. They’re used as a way to clarify that the big bold claim is actually reasonable because it only applies in a narrow setting, within the strict parameters of the study context, in a vacuum, during a blood moon. You get the idea.
Academics are trained to do everything possible to avoid being wrong, and caveats are a way to hedge your bets and shield yourself from being cast as overreaching or naïve.
You spend so much time hedging that you don’t realize that it makes you come off as unsure of your message, and the audience ends up both dubious and confused as to what they’re supposed to believe.
When you communicate persuasively, you need to take a stand. You have a point of view that is backed up by data, and that view is not itself a fact, it is an informed point of view that you want your audience to have as well, and you should stand by it.
You need to strike a balance between making a specific, actionable claim without caveats, and making sure that the claim is supported by the data you have. You have to risk having your view be wrong, because only then will you have some skin in the game.
Think of it this way.
Imagine you’re a scientist who works at a company. Your team wants to make a decision between A and B. Your data says A is better, but you’re only 60% confident about that. The scientist in you is probably tempted to say that the margin of error is too big, the risk is too high to make the call and be wrong, and you need to do more research.
Guess what? You might not have that luxury. People have things to do and decisions to make. There’s a good chance that the decision will be made without you, and whoever is making that decision has a 50/50 shot of making the wrong call.
In the real world, the choice is not to be right or wrong, it’s to have your expertise represented or not.
You can’t maintain the luxury of waiting until you have p< .05 to make a recommendation.
Leave the dead horse alone
I’m in the middle of reading a book right now, written by a scientist. The book is about how to teach your kids language.
I’m a busy guy so I’m listening to it as an audiobook. I’ve been listening to it for 3 full commutes to work, and so far the author has told story after story about study after study on how important it is to talk a lot to your kids.
I believe it.
I believed it after the first story.
I was impressed by how much evidence the author had by the third story.
After hours spent listening to different versions of the same thing, I’m now considering choosing a different book to read.
PhDs often have this notion that all the relevant evidence for something needs to be presented to maximize the chances that you will convince the reader. Not just different data showing the same thing, but also data showing different angles on the same message that makes it even more robust.
That’s not always wrong, but it sure doesn’t help persuade an audience that has stopped paying attention.
You need to calibrate how much data you include to back up your points. Too little and you’re just spewing folk wisdom. Too much and you’re drowning people in numbers they don’t want to swim in.
There’s no universal “right amount” of data for every situation. My suggestion? Test it out before you share it with the actual audience.
Clarity over precision
This last point is probably the only controversial one on this list. It’s one that I still struggle with, and you will probably fight for a long time.
Often when you’re writing for a non-technical audience, you have to choose between a simple statement that’s not very precise and a complex statement that’s confusing.
In most situations, a simpler sentence is the correct choice.
Before you hurl stones and demand I return my Ph.D., hear me out.
I’m not telling you to fabricate data or lie about the science.
Communication and storytelling is an art form. It’s a matter of putting information in a structure that captures people’s attention, makes them feel a certain way, gets them thinking differently, and motivates them to do something about it.
It’s not a scientific practice, but if you want to share knowledge with non-PhDs, you’re going to have to pick up some new skills.
To revisit the main point of all of these tips, the likely reason you’re trying to communicate outside of academic circles is to effect change.
You want your words to leave the audience in a different mindset than before. You want them to know things, internalize them, and act on them.
Sometimes precision gets in the way of that.
You’ve probably called someone out for doing this before. “They’ve completely skipped over the nuance!”
And you would be correct.
But then imagine someone asked you “If you had to assign that sentence a score, where 0 means totally false and 100 means totally true, what would the score be?”
If that sentence scores 80 out of 100, it’s probably good to go.
Is 80 out of 100 universal, or a specific number you measure? Absolutely not.
But it’s an example of what it means to simplify a message to get the point across.
If you’ve only written for an academic audience, this advice sounds like heresy. How DARE you suggest I compromise on the truth for the sake of simplicity?
Your discomfort comes from a quirk of academic culture.
Scholars are expected to be able to take complex pieces of information and quickly come to a reasonable conclusion. Especially if it’s information related to their field. If they don’t understand what you wrote, that’s THEIR fault and responsibility to rectify.
When you communicate to the rest of the world, it’s YOUR responsibility as a communicator to make sure people get it.
At the end of the day, it’s about priorities
Unless you get good, you have to decide.
The choice is between having your audience know a condensed version of what you know, versus your audience getting bored and confused, having learned nothing because you couldn’t escape your PhD training.