By Alisha John


Image credit: Jon Ashcroft


“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:

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.

Part 1: Under the hood: Why scientists are a great fit for science communication.

Part 2: Why scientists don’t engage with the public, and why they should.

About the author

alishaAlisha 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.

5 thoughts on “Keep it simple: Explaining (science) with only the ten hundred most used words

  1. Research description before: Phylostratigraphy is a method for determining how old a gene is. A full genome is BLASTED against the genomes of several target species, for which there are known divergence times. Based on where homologs are found, an approximate age can be assigned to a gene. Usually, trends with gene age are explored after ages are determined– for instance, perhaps the older a gene is the longer it is. However, sometimes a homolog exists but BLAST is unable to find it. Using a simulation of evolution, I create query and target databases in which all genes have the same age. I then perform phylostratigraphy on these simulated genes to estimate how much error occurs, and whether or not trends in gene age are caused by this error. I’ve found that error is much more common than previously thought, and that many trends with gene age might be caused by this error. My research no focuses on reducing or avoiding this error.

    After: Cells have stuff in them that makes your body work right. This stuff is in you, and it’s in a lot all animals. It’s even in things that aren’t animals! Some of the stuff in your cells is the same as the stuff in other animal cells. Way back in time, the stuff in your cells and the stuff in other animal cells came from the very same stuff! Sometimes, we want to know how old this stuff in your cells is. Some of the stuff is really really old. Some of the stuff is really new. We figure out how old your cell-stuff is by looking for human cell stuff in animal cells. We look in the cells of lots of different animals. If we know how long ago you and an animal had the same way-back-parents, then we can figure out how old the stuff is. If we find human stuff in animal cell one and animal cell two, but not in animal cell three, we know that the stuff is as old as the long-time-ago parents of you and animal two, but younger than the long-time-ago parents of you and animal three.

    Once we know how old the stuff is, we can try to find cool things. Maybe older stuff is longer than younger stuff. Maybe there’s more young stuff than there is old stuff. If we find a cool thing, this can actually help doctors make sick people better. Or other doctors can learn new and different cool things with the cool things that we find.

    Sometimes, we’re bad at finding the stuff in animal cells. If we miss stuff that we should have found, we might say “This stuff in your cell is really young!” when it’s actually really old. My work tries to find out how much stuff we miss. I learned that we miss stuff a lot more than we thought. And when we miss stuff, it makes it look like there are cool things when maybe the cool things aren’t real. Now my work is to make us better at finding stuff. If we can get better at finding stuff, the cool things we find will all be real.


    1. Isn’t it difficult to describe this type of research without using words like science, biology, DNA, gene, etc.?!

      Even without them, I think this was a pretty gosh darn good attempt! The only thing I might have added is a sentence to try and connect “stuff” to DNA/genes a little bit more. My trick was saying that inside each cell in an animal there are directions that control how the animal looks and acts.


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