Tips for
science popularisation

It’s well known that a communicator must adapt to their public. And when the audience doesn’t have the same level of knowledge, the speaker needs to make their 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”.

To popularise, is to make complex ideas simple. It’s a difficult exercise, because it requires taking a step back from your expertise. Also, its not always easy to assess the level of knowledge of your audience. English speakers refer to this a the “curse of knowledge”. The principal is the following: a person who knows a subject well comes across difficulty in explaining themselves to a lay person. So, a speaker or writer overestimates the how familiar the audience will be with the topic at hand. 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 general, they don’t 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 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

It’s always interesting to place your work in its global context: scientific, socio-political, economic or, even cultural, challenges. Let’s take the example of the medical field. 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 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. 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.

Now, it’s for you to try. Apply these techniques to your own subject of expertise and see how your public responds.

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> Popularising science

> Public speaking

> Written communication

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