Communication between scientific and non-scientific communities helps foster public trust in the sciences, minimize the spread of misinformation, and inspire future generations. From a practical standpoint, scientists who make their work more visible improve their chances of receiving funding, finding volunteers for human studies, and gaining support for projects that require community approval. Communication also helps general audiences become more informed decision-makers that are better equipped to determine what is true and what is not true when evaluating the vast amount of scientific information available today.
While scientists have much to gain from speaking to non-scientists, they have gained notoriety as poor communicators among nonscientific audiences. Common critiques include speaking or writing with: (1) excessive jargon, and (2) unnecessary details. To avoid these errors, special attention to language and practice in writing for different audiences is needed.
Three Rules for Writing to Non-Specialists
1. Avoid jargon
Jargon refers to the specialized language that is unique to a specific technical field. Because jargon is only common to a specialized audience, filling your writing with jargon excludes, rather than includes, general audience members from accessing the information. Instead, keep it simple. When speaking with non-specialists, use plain language wherever possible, and when a technical term is needed, always explain the term using language that your audience can understand.
2. Use values readers can conceptualize
When you use a single value to describe or explain a concept, it’s likely that fellow scientists in your field will understand its significance. But what if you were to speak the same way to a non-specialist? Well, a likely response would be, “What does that number mean? Is it big, is it small, is it significant, and how do we know this?” Because non-specialists are not familiar with the common values and measurements used in specialized fields, it is crucial that you provide them with a reference point or a source of comparison when using numbers.
One way to explain the significance of a value is to use a graphic to illustrate meaning. This is especially useful when trying to describe a value referring to scale. Graphics that explain scale often depict the image of the object of interest next to an image of a common object, one that people can already estimate the size of, like a penny, a pencil, or a human thumb. By providing a source of comparison, numerical values become more meaningful to readers.
3. Explain the significance of your work early on
Hearing exactly how you went about your experiment means nothing to a general audience if they can’t understand why you did it in the first place! So take the time to explain why you pursued your study (the beginning of your story) and the relevance of your findings (the end of your story) very early on. The middle part, where you explain your experimental steps, is important to explain for context, but the minute details of this section are more relevant to a specialist audience.
SULI General Audience Abstract
The following is adapted from the DOE SULI Program Deliverables Requirements and Guidelines. It is written for participants in the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship program.
As a SULI intern, you have the opportunity to practice communicating with a general audience by writing a 300-word general audience abstract summarizing your internship experience. The abstract must be submitted prior to the end of your appointment and as directed by your lab.
The DOE guidelines state that the general audience abstract should be written for the typical Scientific American reader. Given that 45% of Scientific American readers are business leaders, another 21% are policy makers, 14% are educators, and only 5% are researchers – according to Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina – your job is to summarize your research activities using language that all these different groups can understand.
Your 300-word summary should:
- Be double-spaced.
- Have a title (unique from the title of your science report).
- Highlight your research accomplishment(s).
- Explain the relevance of your activities to the Department of Energy programmatic or mission.
- Define the institutional setting.
- Generally discuss activities, outcomes, impacts, lessons learned, and professional growth and development resulting from your appointment.
Tips for Writing a General Audience Abstract
- Read Scientific American or similar popular science magazines. Find stories related to your field of work and analyze the language and level of detail authors use to explain complex concepts. Try to adopt a similar approach in your own writing.
- Read your work to someone who is a part of your target audience, like friends outside your field. Make note of the questions they have, the things that confused them, and the terms they do not understand, and then make changes to your abstract accordingly
- Clearly explain how your work adds to human knowledge and/or relates to experiences we all share. Incorporate this information into your abstract. Writing that has a human component—something that connects to the knowledge and experiences of everyday people—is more likely to capture the interest of a general audience.