Can You Explain Your Research to a Lay Audience—in 3 Minutes?

Imagine you are a scientist who has been asked to describe your research at a press conference to a gathering of journalists and the lay public. You are expected to explain not only what your research is about but why it is important and why the public should care about your findings. The press conference organizers are expecting you to present information that resonates with a lay audience. The idea is to minimize any use of data and tell a story that conveys the relevance of your work to society or perhaps what motivated you to conduct the research. And….you have only three minutes to get your message across.

The question is: Can you unlearn years of scientific training and be a more engaging communicator?

That was the challenge facing me and other participants at a science communication “boot camp” held at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. These boot camps are week-long events in which science professionals participate in various exercises designed to improve communication skills. During that week, we participated in improv exercises, a realistic TV interview, and preparation of the three-minute talk described above (view the full agenda here). The latter two exercises were critiqued and also filmed so that participants could later review their performances.

Our three-minute talks were developed during a series of exercises in which we gradually built and then honed our stories into (hopefully) effective and memorable talks. For some of us more accustomed to giving technical talks to colleagues, this exercise was difficult. We were pushed way outside our comfort zones. I was impressed, however, with how well all the speakers incorporated what they had learned during the workshop to produce creative and interesting presentations.

I decided to take the recording of my press-conference presentation and, with a bit of editing, produce a brief video for distribution on one of my websites devoted to the topic of wetlands—my area of interest. I used iMovie to trim the footage, to create cutaways (to photos illustrating some of the things I mentioned in the talk), to add text titles, and to change up the perspective a bit to make the video more visually interesting. If you are interested in learning more about movie-editing, check out my Tutorials.

The press conference was, of course, imaginary. Our audience was composed of workshop participants and organizers who played the role of journalists and who asked questions about what we presented. As you will see, I went a few seconds over my three-minute limit, but managed to get across my message:

What everyone discovered in this exercise is that it is difficult to “wing it” when trying to deliver a scientific message to an audience completely unfamiliar with the topic. What works for an audience of your peers will not work for a lay audience—or even an audience of scientists trained in other disciplines.

To be successful requires (1) an ability to distill your message so that it is clear and concise, (2) an understanding of what your audience needs in the way of information and emotional connection to the topic, and (3) some skill at storytelling. Giving professional talks at conferences to your colleagues will not really prepare you. A week-long course focused on science communication won’t do it either—although you learn a few things and get some preliminary experience. Like any skill, it takes practice to become comfortable explaining your work to the average person on the street.

Most science students receive little or no training in communication techniques and mainly learn how to talk to technical audiences. That is how I was trained. However, scientists are increasingly asked to speak to the media, to policy-makers, and to the general public about their research. Not everyone is cut out to be a science communicator, of course, but we can certainly improve our communication skills so that we can interact more effectively with lay audiences when the need arises.

Academic institutions are recognizing the importance of science communication skills and are developing curricula to meet this growing need (e.g., Communication across the Curriculum, Louisiana State University). Several science societies are also offering workshops at annual meetings that focus on improving communication skills by members (e.g., AGU). Some institutions have special centers, like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, which offer intensive summer courses or workshops for anyone interested in acquiring new communication skills.

If you have the opportunity to take a science communication workshop or course, you should consider it, especially if you are a student or early-career scientist. Acquiring these skills early will benefit your career in the long-run. Also, you might discover that learning to distill your message, to consider your audience’s needs, and to use storytelling techniques can have beneficial feedback effects on your scientific writing and presenting.