Keep It Simple, Make it Human

Dr. Jory Weintraub offers the Huang Fellows Insight into Scientific Communication

According to Dr. Jory Weintraub, from Duke’s Science and Society, this is the key to effective science communication. At a first glance, the phrase may seem too simple, too short. But its simplicity is its strength. Scientists love their nuances, jargon, and impersonality when discussing findings. Although vitally important for conversations between scientists, these habits often cause the public to lose sight of the main idea.

Professor Jory Weintraub leads a SciComm workshop
Professor Jory Weintraub leads a SciComm workshop

At the beginning of his science communication crash course, Dr. Weintraub contrasted the way science and the media share information. In a scientific journal, papers begin with a lengthy introduction that justifies the reason for the work. The authors then proceed to explain their methods and results. It is not until the very end of the paper that they summarize and interpret their findings. Unfortunately, this method can become so ingrained in our thinking that it slips into our public communication as well.

For example, the Huang Fellows are producing podcasts about the story of our lab work. After Dr. Weintraub’s workshop, I went back to incorporate his advice into my script. Immediately, I noticed that my podcast was following the structure of a scientific paper. I spent the first two-thirds of the podcast setting up the background and describing our methods. It was not until the last minute that I finally discussed what my lab was doing and why. As a rising sophomore in college, I have only been involved in the scientific world for a few years, but I have already fallen into the habit of communicating my scientific work in a manner that reflects a journal paper. I can only imagine how easy it is for a scientist, 30 years into their career, to slip into this trap.

In contrast, the media gives the punchline at the very beginning to hook the audience. They are keenly aware that everyone has their own worries and busy lives. If they cannot quickly explain why their story matters, the public is unlikely to continue reading or listening. Consequently, while the style of a journal article is logical and works well for an audience of colleagues who are already invested and interested in the topic, for the public, it is very ineffective.

Clearly, grabbing your audience’s opinion at the beginning is crucial, but how do you hold it?

“Clearly, grabbing your audience’s opinion at the beginning is crucial, but how do you hold it?”

According to Dr. Weintraub, the key is to continue speaking in a manner that your audience can connect to. This requires avoiding jargon. Although jargon often carries the stench of a bad word, Dr. Weintraub took a nuanced perspective and acknowledged its purpose. Jargon is a tool, an efficient way of talking with colleagues and experts who share your understanding. Yet, this tool becomes a crutch when used with an audience who is not immersed in your field. There is a time and place for jargon, and science communication is not one.

Dr. Weintraub also recommended using metaphors, similes, and narratives to tell the story of your work. As human beings, we connect with stories. Dr. Weintraub discussed the findings of various studies that showed increased levels of cortisol, oxytocin, neural coupling, and dopamine in the brain while listening to storytelling. However, it does not take a scientific study for us to understand this. From personal experience and by watching the way even young children latch onto and internalize stories, we see the profound impact stories have on us. Reflecting on my high school years, I remember my AP Chemistry teacher was beloved by the students for her ability to make the class fun and understandable. Her secret? Using simple but memorable metaphors to bring scientific principles to life.

Science does not exist in a silo. It aims to understand the very world surrounding us, improve our lives, and serve society. Yet, it is hard to realize this mission when science becomes inaccessible, veiled from the very public it aims to serve by a cloud of jargon and excessive details. Dr. Weintraub’s talk has taught me that, in principle, science communication is in fact quite simple. It requires us to be more human. It requires us to let go of the jargon, impersonality, and scrupulous details that are the hallmarks of scientific literature. While vitally important in a scientific journal or conference with colleagues, we must recognize that these habits do more harm than good when communicating with the public.

As scientists, science communication is our responsibility. It is our job to make our findings accessible and understandable to the public and not the public’s responsibility to learn the nuances of our work. Both a challenge and an exciting opportunity, our ability to effectively communicate determines the public’s perception of science and consequently the attitudes and policies that will shape science’s future.

Clare Sparling, Huang Fellow ’24

Sparling_ClareClare is from Northern Virginia, and plans on majoring in biology and environmental science with a minor in chemistry.