As a reader, you have no doubt had a report in your hands that is so complex that all you want to do is throw away. As a speaker you have perhaps had to deal with an audience full of blank faces that you have lost along the way. As a communicator you must adapt to your public. And when the audience doesn’t have your level of knowledge, you will need to make your content more accessible – or “popularise” it. The famous geneticist, Albert Jacquard, is the author of an amusing expression about breaking down complex ideas: French people seem to wrongly think, “No one understands me, so I must be more intelligent than other people”. I think that, on the contrary, we must say, “If no one understands me, then I didn’t explain myself very well”. In this article, find out more about 3 techniques for popularising your subject.
To popularise is to make complex ideas simple. Assessing the level of knowledge of your audience is not always easy. It’s a difficult exercise, because it requires taking a step back from your expertise. Some speakers refer to this a the “curse of knowledge”. Basically, this means: a person who knows a subject well will find it difficult to explain themselves to a lay person. A speaker or writer overestimates how familiar the audience will be with the topic at hand, misjudging their ability to understand. But, how far should we go in terms of simplification?
Over the course of our experience in training people in popularisation, we have learnt the following: communicators rarely over-simplify. In fact, they generally don’t even realise how far away their level of expertise is from that of their public. In oral communication, the result can be seen by the tired – even sleeping – eyes of the audience. In written form, reports and other documents that are too technical will end up in the waste paper bin.
Since all of us write to be read and speak to be heard, we have decided to reveal some science popularisation tips to make your work more accessible. Essentially, how should you go about popularising? Several tools are available. In this article we have picked out three of them:
1. Put your work into context
You work is placed in a context that it aims to shed light on: scientific, social, economic or even cultural challenges. A researcher has produced a prosthetic limb with integrated electronic sensors. The innovation allows a patient to collect data about the condition of the prosthetic on their own from home.
The scientist, to help us better understand the importance of their innovation, would benefit from telling us how many patients could be helped each year and the financial savings that a design like this would make to the social security budget.
2. Make a link between your discipline and your public
Your audience won’t always be aware of the proximity between their own problems and your scientific research. So perhaps you could explain several applications to them that affect their daily life: right now, in the near future or 10 years down the line.
Imagine that you are giving a speech about data security in front a lay audience of students. You can start your speech by asking, “Who, out of you, uses Facebook?”. Give them enough time in silence to raise their hand, then follow with, “Who sometimes buys things on the internet?”. With a second silence to let them express themselves. Your point is made: they now feel concerned by your subject. They are ready to listen to you attentively.
3. Use analogies and metaphors
Calling upon a few analogies and metaphors can be very useful when popularising science. The idea is to bring simple and complex ideas closer together to improve understanding. Take the analogy of the famous physician, Otto Frisch, “If an atom was blown up to the size of a bus, the nucleus would be like the point on this i”. This comparison clarifies a difficult notion to transmit: infinitely small.
Another example: a metaphor by Jacques-Marie Bardintzeff, famous volcanologist and brilliant science communicator, “Volcanoes are like human beings, they are all the same but different. Us humans, we look alike but none of us have the same personality. Volcanoes are the same. Hence, why it’s important to study them.” Later in his presentation, the researcher even spoke about “lazy volcanoes”. A metaphor can therefore be re-used to tie several bits of your presentation together.
Now, it’s time for you to try. Apply these techniques to your own subject of expertise and see how your public responds. One thing is certain, investing time is worthwhile. Science popularisation is as enriching for the person listening as it is for the person speaking! Thinking about your research in a different light, pulling it together to explain it better allows you to take a step back. And with this new outlook, you might even explore new paths…
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