Speaking of Research

Source: Research Competition

Raise your hand if you’ve ever watched a TED talk and felt an exhilarating stroke of motivation.

(Sorry, paused for a second to raise my hand.)

Communicating as cogently as inspirational speakers is a rare art, one that is far more imperative in science than most realize or pursue. Do you learn better from a professor who explains concepts in a digestible form, or one that throws you in the deep end of a pool of equations and jargon?

One Google search is all it takes to know the appalling opinion the world has about scientists talking research. But the worst part is that as researchers, we’ve embraced and normalized this narrative instead of challenging the status quo. We rely on middlemen such as journalists to decipher the jargon vomit in journal articles into everyday vernacular, oftentimes with lost-in-translation consequences. As an illustration, individually “out of sight” and “invisible” can be considered synonyms, but translate “out of sight, out of mind” from English to Russian and back[nytimes], and you’re left with the very different “invisible, insane”.

Most undergraduate and graduate programs are designed to train students extensively in technical knowledge, but that alone is not enough. As Matt Might (Director, Hugh Kaul Precision Medicine Institute and Professor, University of Alabama) explains eloquently in his “Illustrated guide to a PhD” blog, researchers are pushing the boundaries of human knowledge. When you’re in your own narrow bubble of research, everything seems obvious, but when you zoom out to the big picture, it’s clear that if you aren’t smart about conveying your work, the little blip you’ve worked so hard at will disappear into noise.

Source: Illustrated guide to a PhD by Matt Might

The need to communicate research effectively may seem obvious, but most students tend to struggle with this aspect of research, primarily because nobody ever explains what “effective” really means. Opportunities in school only ever require us to talk to a panel of experts who also reside in our little research bubble, grasping the significance of every last equation even if we don’t. Giving the same jargony talk to a non-expert but sufficiently intelligent human? You, my friend, have earned yourself some dazed looks, glassy eyes, and confused frowns. 

Worse still, do that to a layperson (who could easily be a policy-maker or investor) and you risk reinforcing the misconception that science is gibberish and funding research is a misuse of taxpayer dollars. To be truly effective, you need to master the art of dynamic storytelling, constantly evaluating if the audience is receiving what you’re trying to give them.

You’re probably wondering, if no one really teaches you these things in school, how did I come about this enlightenment? Well, my enthusiasm for science communication was founded serendipitously early in my graduate career. Specifically at the end of my first year, when I was unreasonably and unceremoniously “fired” from my research group five weeks short of taking my candidacy exam (another story for another time). 

Inherently, the situation almost guaranteed that I would fail. Yet I braved the decision to go ahead with it anyway because I knew I had eight solid months worth of research output to back me up. Well, also because circumstances dictated that I had nothing left to lose. I was hedging my bets on the hope that giving a phenomenal talk would flip the powerplay equation to my favor. Needless to say, my bets panned out, credited as much to the good-faith support shown by my department as to my own hard work. 

So how did I create a phenomenal talk that saved my graduate career at the University of Michigan? 

One of the side effects of being “fired” is that you can no longer rely on your (former) PI for advice on preparing for your candidacy exam. I knew the science was solid, but convincing another person of the same is a whole other game from knowing for yourself. Here’s the funny thing about challenges — perspective is all it takes to transform them into opportunity. In this case, I chose to use the challenge of telling my science story convincingly into a “get-’em-all” game. By that, I mean I practiced my talk ad nauseum for over a month with every person I knew, encouraging them to be highly critical to help polish and refine the talk. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone, regardless of their background and scientific experience.

The result? I had managed to craft a talk that was both technically informative and understandable, one that could be appreciated by anyone, expert or not.

By no means was this a calculated move. It was borne purely from the intrinsic desire to ensure I had left no stone unturned, that I had done everything in my power to salvage the situation. 

But reflecting back, I realized that the choice to practice my talk and heed the advice of numerous people with diverse perspectives, though borne out of desperation, was the ultimate driving force to my success. It was the catalyst that has initiated my passion to fix the broken system of science communication, help re-establish the trust in STEM research, and in doing so improve society’s overall perception of science.

It’s time researchers claim ownership to not just the scientific progress of their work, but also to the quality of it’s dissemination. Preserving the integrity of science is not limited just to the collection and interpretation of information, but also to the interpretation the world makes from it. When scientists also take on the mantle of storytellers, we can play an active role in the public narrative of science research and help improve it’s perception and impact in society. 

Of course, that’s not to say we should all become science journalists. Let’s just start with making their jobs a little easier by doing our due diligence with how we communicate science through the traditional channels of research – research talks and journal articles. Below are some tips that I’ve been offered or learnt over the years that have been helpful in my journey of science storytelling.

1. Understand Thy Audience. Be aware of the communication filter. Just because you think you are clearly communicating your message, doesn’t mean the audience is receiving the same message. Learn to dynamically modulate the way you deliver your message so you’re on the same page as your audience.

Source: http://sarahmariestone.com/ready-to-rumble-know-thyself/

2. Storytelling, not Data-dumping. Contrary to popular belief, making complex slides does NOT make you seem intelligent – it just confuses your audience. Instead, focus on crafting a compelling story using your data. Only one caveat – science storytelling is different in that you give away the punchline right away instead of building suspense. This focuses the audience’s attention exactly where you want it to be.

3. Don’t “Dumb it Down”. “Dumbing” down slides, though a well-intentioned tip, usually backfires just as much as complex slides. Most students take the wrong meaning of this phrase, and end up making dull slides that fail to capture the attention of the audience. Present the information in an intuitive, clear, and concise manner, but don’t be condescending to your audience.

4. 3M. The three message rule hinges on the ability of most people to remember only 3 things from any talk. What three messages do you want the audience to walk away with? Center your talk on these.

5. 3Tells. Once you’ve figured out your three messages, reinforce them continuously.  Tell them what you’re going to tell them; Tell them; Tell them what you told them

6. Script It. Write out a well-thought script with full sentences and practice with that in mind. The goal is not to memorize the script (really, don’t do that), but you’ll know you’re rambling when you stray too far off-script.

7. Active Outreach. Participate in outreach events to practice modulating the explanation of your research based on the audience (middle school, high school, Nerd Nite, etc.)

8. Constructive Criticism. Frequently practice talks with experts and non-experts; seek and embrace constructive criticism. Not only does it help refine the talk, it’s also less embarrasing to catch dumb mistakes with people you trust than at a national conference or TEDx talk. 

9. Plus-Minus-Delta. Review your talks by using the +/-/delta format. What do you think went well (plus) and what didn’t go so well (minus) and/or could have been improved (delta)? Keep these in mind for the next time you give a talk.

10. Read. Understand and analyze how good works are written – this extends beyond scientific works. Even reading quality fiction and non-fiction works can instruct on mastering the written word. Words merely convey information, it’s the combination, construction, context, and subtleties that gives them meaning.

11. Transcribe Monologues. When writing articles/report, don’t try too hard to use fancy language. Just start by transcribing your thoughts as though you were delivering a monologue. Using simple words is not always bad, especially if the goal is to make complex content more intuitively graspable.

12. Context. Don’t leave the context of your writing in your head, put it on paper. Oftentimes students follow good sentence structure, but fail to provide context which leaves the reader just as confused (if not more). Whether it’s a talk or written communications, always provide a 30,000-ft view of the problem (e.g. curing cancer, building supersonic jets, etc.). In other words, why should your work be of interest to society? 

13. Tap into your Former Novice. Review your writing by pretending you’re a novice in the field –  after all, once upon a time, this was true. In my experience, the best way to evaluate the quality of written scientific work is by ignoring the specialized knowledge in your brain and using only the exact information in the document for context. 

Eshita Khera is a Chemical Engineering PhD candidate at the University of Michigan. She founded the Training (for) Better Presentations speaker series at U-M which is a year-round hands-on SciComm workshop for graduate students (https://events.umich.edu/event/59651).

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