3 Ways Scientists Can Talk About Their Work Without Utterly and Completely Losing Their Audience

June 30, 2014 | 9:29 am
Aaron Huertas
Former Contributor

“So…what do you do for a living?” It’s a cliché question in Washington, D.C., where I live, but it’s not entirely unheard of outside the Beltway.

For scientists, it can be a tough one, especially if they’re not speaking with other researchers. Most scientific work is technical and the day-to-day of a scientific job can feel far removed from people’s everyday experience.

Here are three tips to help scientists connect with their audience, whether it’s at a dinner party, a church social, or Burning Man.

1. Who uses your work is more important than where you work

Usually, scientists answer the job question by naming the institution where they work. But unless it’s NASA, they probably can’t rely on name recognition to connect with their audience. Instead, scientists could do more to communicate who uses their research and why that matters.

"Let Me Tell You About My Research!" -- Illustration by Olivia Ambrogio, American Geophysical Union

“Let Me Tell You About My Research!” — Illustration by Olivia Ambrogio, American Geophysical Union

For instance, my colleague Rich Hayes was doing a workshop with a scientist who specialized in coastal research. The scientist would usually answer the job question by talking about his lab, tidal gauges, and computer models. Instead, he figured out that a simple way to explain his work is that he’s the guy you call if you want to know whether or not your family’s beach house will be around for your grand-daughter. Such an answer makes people want to know more and creates opportunities to elucidate how his work protects the coastlines we love.

2. Bring it back to people

When my colleague Brenda Ekwurzel and I gave a talk at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration a few years ago, we highlighted how the agency’s website emphasizes pictures of research vessels, scientists tagging marine life, and distressed-looking fish. Their message: we’re doing a lot of scientific research.

The Ronald H. Brown, NOAA's largest research ship.

The Ronald H. Brown, NOAA’s largest research ship.

But why does it matter? We showed the room an advertisement for ClubMed. That’s why it matters. People love the ocean and they love it when the ocean is clean. Similarly, NOAA scientists study and protect the fish we eat. Pictures of artfully prepared salmon and fish aisles at the supermarket tell that story, too.

To cite a few more examples: soil scientists help keep food on our plates, even if their day-to-day work involves analyzing a lot of dirt. Engineers don’t just make complex models of car engines, they help make sure our cars go further on a gallon of gas. Ecologists don’t just study how healthy trees are, they help forest managers prevent wildfires. And astrophysicists don’t just map cosmic microwave background radiation, they help us answer deep questions about why the universe is the way it is.

3. Don’t fall into the arrogance trap

The biggest difficulty scientists can run into in explaining their work is simply losing their audience. Too many wonky details can make people’s eyes glaze over. There’s another danger, too. When a scientist makes their job sound difficult, hard-to-understand and unrelated to people’s lives, it can also have the effect of making scientists appear aloof or even arrogant. As Princeton University’s Susan Fiske has discovered, people often perceive scientists as competent, but cold.

Basically, you never want to risk the possibility of coming across as this guy:

Putting it into practice

So what do you do for a living? If you’re a scientist, how would you relate your work back to people’s everyday lives or things they might care about? Give it a try in the comments below. It’s okay if it seems a few steps removed at first. I’ll respond and we’ll see if we can come up with some alternative answers to consider when folks ask you what you do.

Do you have other tips for explaining your work? We can feature responses we get to these questions in our Science Network’s Tip of the Week. You can also check out an online workshop we hosted that focused on explaining what you do and why it matters.