By Alisha John
“So, what do you do for a living?”
It’s a simple question you’ve probably heard more times than you can count, but it isn’t necessarily easy to answer. When you’re a scientist, jargon is king in your day-to-day interactions. A seemingly simple question like this can induce an internal battle between the highly technical, scientific part of your brain and the social part that wants to relate to people outside your area of study. Winning that battle is only achieved by effectively communicating your work with people outside your field.
We’ve already touched a bit about WHY effective communication from scientists is important and some reasons why scientists aren’t communicating as much as they should. Another reason to add to that list: many scientists lack the skill needed to convey complex topics to a non-expert audience. Too often, scientists are unable to divorce themselves from their jargon for long enough to communicate effectively. This isn’t very surprising, nor is it a problem that only plagues scientists. Anyone who becomes an expert in their field undoubtedly develops a toolbox of jargon. Just ask any attorney the standard for a court having personal jurisdiction and you’ll slip into a legalese coma. But the use of jargon isn’t inherently evil. In fact, it is sometimes necessary to communicate succinctly and specifically with audiences in your field. The problem with jargon surfaces when you then want to zoom out and communicate with the rest of the world.
How does one get better at zooming out and communicating with broader audiences? Practice. Challenge yourself to explain your work without using jargon. Better yet, challenge yourself to explain a complex topic using only the thousand most common English words!
Er, sorry. I mean: Better yet,
challenge yourself try to explain a complex topic not easy thing using only the thousand ten hundred most common used English words!
This idea was pioneered by Randall Munroe who explained the Saturn V rocket in a comic appropriately named the Up Goer Five, since both Saturn and rocket do not fall in the ten hundred most common words.
Here is my attempt at rewriting my jargon-filled conference abstract in the style of the Up Goer Five:
In most situations, the best solution is probably somewhere between these two extremes. So, good news, fellow scientists, you don’t have to abandon all of your jargon! You can adjust the amount you use based on your audience, as well as length and style of communication. Plus, if you find the Goldilocks amount of jargon and provide explanation for what you do use, you can use your communication as an opportunity to expand the knowledge of your audience. To find that sweet spot, it can be helpful to go to the two extremes: the overly complex and the overly simplified.
To find one extreme, try your hand at explaining a complex topic in the Up Goer Five style here: http://splasho.com/upgoer5/
How did it go?! More difficult than expected? Share your attempts in the comments.
Note: This is the final post in a three part series about science communication.
About the author
Alisha is a PhD student in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology at the University of Michigan. A member of the Wittkopp Lab, Alisha studies how changes in gene expression contribute to different phenotypes seen in nature; more specifically, she is trying to figure out how two fruit fly species became very different in terms of coloration. Alisha is a Michigan native and earned her B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Wayne State University in Detroit before making the jump into Biology. When she isn’t busy staring lovingly at Drosophila, you can find Alisha baking delicious desserts, being an amateur foodie, and/or spending time with friends & family. Follow her on Twitter (@AlishaJohn) and on LinkedIn.
Read all posts by Alisha here.