Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Communication Basics

08 Feb 2018
In a new monthly column, our resident expert provides a quick checklist for preparing to engage with lay audiences.

Communication Basics

By Ruth Francis

In preparing to engage with non-scientific audiences, researchers might be tempted to focus on the details of their work. Instead, they should step back and consider the bigger picture. Key to success, and to feeling comfortable, is preparation. Think about who the audience is, what your key messages are, and cut to the chase.

Here is a helpful checklist that applies to both talks and written articles:

1. Who is the audience? An audience of keen science students will require a different tone than the lay public. Think about what will interest them, not you. This won't always be the same as what a colleague finds fascinating in the field, but you won't catch the attention of a lay audience if you target your peers.

2. What are the key messages? Research has shown that people remember well in threes, so preparing three key messages helps both the speaker and the audience. Each should be brief and it’s important to accept that sometimes there will only be time for one or two so make sure they are prioritised in order of importance.

3. Keep it simple and tell stories. Stories can be more memorable than statistics. Statistics may be crucial for research papers and peer presentations, but for an audience to retain a message, a story can be far more powerful.

4. Avoid jargon. When speaking to peers, researchers need to use very specific terms, but this isn’t necessary in public communication. Indeed, it can be hard for a public audience to understand jargon. A good tip for finding broader terms is to look at news websites and see how they describe research in the field and follow their lead.

5. Do not hype. It may seem tempting to try to make research sound more exciting or impactful than it is but this can lead to a sense of mistrust. Stick to the facts.

6. Play to your strengths. Many talented writers find public speaking raises anxiety. In that case, they could start their own blog. Others find putting pen to paper generates nothing, but are energized by volunteering to do outreach in schools or museums to inspire the next generation and general public.

With preparation and practice, engaging broad audiences can be rewarding, and could take your career in new directions. Time to give it a go. In next month’s column, we’ll discuss press releases -- why send one and how to approach writing it.



Ruth Francis is a communications expert with over 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central. King's College London and Cancer Research UK.