Work like a scientist, don’t sound like one

A pitch or presentation is not a full paper – and squeezing in too much detail will only alienate your audience. Here are four tips to make your research easy to understand in any context

Philipp Gramlich's avatar
20 Feb 2023
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Get your research out there: 7 strategies for high-impact science communication
Noisy big megaphone. Speaker announcing news to target audience, science communication

Scientists tend to be notoriously hard to understand. You can do the test: go to a random poster outside your core field of expertise at your next conference and ask the presenter to walk you through her poster. In most cases, you’ll be lost in the details of the scientist’s work.

We are working on high levels of abstraction and detail. However, what’s true for our daily work doesn’t have to be the case for how we present our science. A talk is not a full paper, and a poster pitch is not a narrated version of the entire A0 sheet.

Let’s look at four tips to avoid sounding too much like yet another hard-to-understand scientist.

Who is the audience anyway?

I checked the poster pitches at a biology conference some years ago, being a chemist myself. After several lengthy monologues, I reached the poster of an upbeat young woman. When I asked her to walk me through her poster, she countered with a question: “What’s your background?” Knowing that I was not from her field, she focused on the big picture instead of the details, engaging in a lively dialogue instead of the monologues I had endured before.

It’s so simple. Whenever you start any kind of conversation, you should ask the simple yet magical question: “What’s your background?” This allows you to adapt the level of detail and jargon to your audience: jargon can be a shortcut to broader ideas for the specialists in your field but can also be confusing for non-specialists.

It’s easy to ask this question in a one-on-one conversation like a poster presentation. If you present in front of a group or write a text, you can ask about the composition of the audience or readership to anticipate what might interest them most.

Work additively, not subtractively

When scientists are asked to present their work in a brief format such as a five-minute presentation, they sigh: “How shall I squeeze so many results into that tiny space?” The resulting presentation will probably be messy, with overcrowded slides and short-breathed explanations.

A pitch or presentation is not a full paper, so don’t mix these formats. Try to take the audience’s perspective and imagine how much they will be able to remember after just half an hour of a bustling conference. If it’s one piece of information, then you, as the presenter, and they, as listeners, have done a decent job. If it’s two, it’s outstanding. Why do we try to put 10 points across if we know we aim too high?

Squeezing information doesn’t work, so we need to make a selection. Starting from your full paper and cutting it down to size is a painful process. “I worked so hard on this experiment. How can I not mention it?”

Therefore, you need to change the process: start with a blank slate and add just one main statement, the one piece of information you want your audience to remember. As a second step, only add things that support this main statement, nothing else. How does the result look? It‘s a presentation with an excellent signal-to-noise (S/N) ratio. The signal, your main argument, is much clearer, while the noise – all those little pieces of extra information – is significantly reduced. Your pitch or presentation is suddenly much cleaner and more focused.

Being understandable is the basis, being relevant is the key

With a good S/N ratio, you will be more understandable. That’s level one. Scientists often overlook level two: how can you make your presentation relevant to your audience? We tend to see the relevance of our own work as all too obvious, so we don’t elaborate on it because of the fear of sounding trivial.

The basis for this is yet again the magical question: “What’s your background?” You should always ask yourself: what part of my story interests them? It is not necessarily what you like best yourself. You can often tell your story from different viewpoints and choose among main arguments or findings. Let’s take a computer program as an example. Computer scientists will be interested in the intricacies of the software itself, while most others will be interested in the output and what the program can do for them.

Be aware of the PhD stereotype

The tips from this article will help you communicate in an understandable and relevant way to people inside and outside academic circles. However, you will still be stereotyped in environments with a low proportion of scientists. People tend to think that scientists are, by definition, hard-to-understand detail fetishists. “Ah, that scientist again.” Awareness of this PhD stereotype lets you put your audience’s reactions into perspective; you won’t be needlessly defensive.

You must be meticulous and detail-focused in your scientific work and publications. When communicating that science, you need to adapt the way you sound: who are you speaking to, and what is the setting?

Philipp Gramlich is co-founder of NaturalScience.Careers, a company specialising in career development and science communication workshops, talks and articles for scientists.

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