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Explaining your science—tips for clear communication

Vicky Cahan
Vicky AUTREY,
Branch Chief,
Office of Communications & Public Liaison (OCPL)
.

You’re preparing a poster to present at a scientific symposium.

You have an interview with a reporter about a recent publication.

You’re at a family reunion and your aunt asks what you’re working on.

You’re writing a grant application.

In all of these scenarios, the ability to speak or write clearly is important for delivering your message successfully. “Plain language” is a common term for communication that your audience can easily understand and use the first time they hear or read it.

Much of our job in the NIA’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison is to help scientists talk and write about research in a clear, uncomplicated way. We want to tell the public and other audiences about the research we support and conduct. We also want to share research news that affects everyday life.

Many researchers struggle to find those simple words, and I notice similar difficulties again and again. Let me share with you tips for avoiding these common mistakes, and an example of how we worked with a scientist to rewrite scientific text for clearer communication.

Know your audience

More resources on communicating your science

Here are just a few of the many great tools available to you.

Communicating Your Science to the Non-Expert: An Online Workshop from the Society for Neuroscience

Communication 101: Communication Basics for Scientists and Engineers from the American Association for the Advancement of Science

The most critical component of plain language is understanding your audience. You can assume that you won’t have to simplify things as much for your colleagues as for your aunt. But, remember:

  • I’ve never heard someone complain that a scientist was too easy to understand.
  • Plain language is important even for a technical audience. Just because a scientist is an authority in one field doesn’t mean he or she is an expert in your area of research.
  • Avoid jargon, no matter the audience.

Plain language techniques

Here are some tips for plain language. They are primarily aimed at interacting with the general public or an educated lay audience. Many of these points are good to keep in mind when presenting to scientific colleagues, too.

  • Focus on what’s important and don’t get buried in background or extraneous information.
  • Always be accurate. There are ways to summarize specific findings for all audiences that account for details and nuance, even if all the details are not presented. More detail is not necessarily better, particularly for lay audiences.
  • When preparing to share your work, think about how you’d explain your research to non-experts, and go from there. This helps you focus on core themes and take-away messages.
  • Stick to common, everyday words and define technical terms.
  • Use active voice. Avoid passive verbs.
  • Keep to short sentences as much as possible.

We have resources that you might find helpful. Check out NIH’s free Plain Language Online Training. And, get more tips from the CDC.

An example of communicating science

Chee Chia, a medical officer at NIA, was selected to present her work at a press conference during the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting this past June. She has graciously allowed me to show how we worked with her to make a description of her research more plainly written.

Original:

For this analysis, we selected 353 Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA) participants who had data on fungiform papillae density (marker of taste bud number) and markers of how our body handles glucose, such as fasting blood glucose levels. BLSA is an ongoing, prospective, observational study of normative aging in community-dwelling volunteers established since 1958 and is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging. We found that lower fungiform papillae density is strongly correlated both with advancing age and with higher fasting blood glucose levels. These results support the hypothesis that taste bud density plays a role in glucose metabolism during the aging process.

Revised:

In this study, we analyzed data from 353 participants in the National Institute on Aging’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA). Specifically, we looked at number of taste buds (fungiform papillae density) and markers of how the body handles sugar, such as fasting blood glucose levels.

Established in 1958, the BLSA is an ongoing, prospective, observational study of normal aging in community-dwelling volunteers.

We found that reduced number of taste buds (lower fungiform papillae density) is strongly correlated both with advancing age and with higher fasting blood glucose levels. These results support the hypothesis that taste bud density plays a role in how the body uses sugar during the aging process.

Do you see how the text has changed? I bet the revised version was more understandable to you, as it was to Chee’s audience.

Do you have more questions about plain language in scientific writing and speaking? Get in touch with me by commenting below.

Scientific Resources

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