Communicating Your Research to a Lay Audience

workshop participants practice their communication skills

Doctoral student Gregory DeGirolamo (Psychology) took a breath and began, “I study how memory changes as people age. I'm interested in factors influencing memory and what separates healthy aging from clinical aging, such as in Alzheimer's. To do this, I use FMRI and ERP…”

The audience erupted. "Whoa!" "What?"

With a laugh, DeGirolamo quickly amended his explanation, “I take pictures of brain activation while people do memory exercises.”

And with that, his research became more accessible to his audience.

Why Communication is Important

During the communication workshop on March 19, Dr. Mark Doyle, Director of the IANR Global Engagement Office and a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow (STPF), outlined how the public learns about science and why that needs to change. With current policy on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), climate change, and vaccination being determined by non-scientists, the ability to clearly communicate research findings is more vital than ever.

Communicating your research effectively can help you get a job, publish your research, obtain funding, make friends, and influence people. No, really! You can share your work with your students, your family and associates—even with strangers, and you need to be able to quickly and clearly explain what's important about it.

How to Present Your Research

When addressing a non-expert audience, take their technical knowledge into account, and use language your audience is familiar with. Avoid jargon or words that are a challenge for others to understand.

One specific way you'll be communicating your research is with people who ask, "So what do you do?" You’ll want to be ready with a short presentation of your work and its importance (sometimes called an elevator speech, after the length of an elevator ride—one minute or less).

In the workshop, Doyle outlined a simple formula for developing an effective elevator speech:

Start by developing one or two sentences about your research that has broad public appeal. Name the important issue your research tackles, or the hook to capture your audience's attention.

Next, craft three to five succinct sentences to explain the general topic and nature of your research, avoiding jargon.

Finish off with one or two sentences that connect your research back to the important issue you led off with, and describe what's next for your work.

Workshop participants had time to practice pitching their research to the group. Like DeGirolamo, most found it easy to talk about what they were doing, but surprisingly difficult to explain why they were doing it. With practice they could construct analogies or otherwise connect their work to their listeners' daily experiences, and leave the audience nodding with understanding and wanting to know more. Give it a try. Can you give an interesting and outline of your work to an uninformed audience?