The utilisation of overly technical terminology when communicating scientific hypotheses and theories to the general populace can actually hinder a person’s comprehension of the subject, and is more of a deterrent than an advantage when it comes to public engagement and scientific literacy.
When communicating science, the use of overly complicated words can actually confuse and put people off learning more about the subject.
As researchers and science communicators increase their efforts to engage the public in science, and with the booming use of social media platforms, news about ground-breaking science is more accessible to those who want to learn, but the way we communicate matters (even more so when you only have 140 characters to do so).
Academics and researchers do have their own language when speaking with one another; and in research environments, it is important to be clear about exactly what you are talking about. But, outside of these bubbles, much of this language is just overly specific, and when it comes to communicating this information, it just muddies the water, when all you really need is a clear view of the topic. Imagine that you are a policy maker needing to make an important decision; if the information is presented in your non-native language, or if you are a person who is wanting to learn more about the subject, the use of these technical terms is more likely to confuse you further, rather than helping your understanding, even when links or definitions are included.
Less is more, and this is especially true when it comes to science communication. You need to include enough information for the audience to understand what you are trying to share, but most of the time, that is it.
Of course, this does depend on your target audience; the way you talk about science to a 6-year-old is obviously going to be different to the way you communicate the same topic to a room full of adults, but still, usually, the basics will do. The inclusion of technical terms and jargon can actually make your audience feel a greater level of disconnection to the subject, can make them feel less confident about sharing what they have learnt with others, or even put them off from making future attempts to engage with the topic in the future.
So, what can be done to help researchers and academics share their research? The field of science communication and public engagement is an area of expertise all to itself, and although science communication modules and workshops are becoming more and more common parts of academic learning in undergraduate and post-graduate degree programs, for one person to be an expert in all these areas is just not feasible, especially if public outreach is only part of your research role.
So here are a few hints to help you communicate better with an audience:
● Keep it simple- I know I have mentioned this before, but it is worth repeating. When communicating with an audience, make the content as clear and simple as possible. And, if you do need to include some technical language, be sure to explain this terminology in a way that is easy to understand, but also avoid words that mean something different in a public context.
● Add a narrative- humans have evolved to love stories, and if you can recontextualise your research and add a personal touch, all the better. This helps an audience get a feeling for why and how the research is being done, but also makes the communicator seem more approachable. (Researchers and academics are humans too!).
● Use metaphors or comparisons- similar to the previous point, but comparing concepts to others which are more relatable to your audience can allow them to easily make connections to the subject that resonate more easily. However, use with caution, a poorly created metaphor can result in an audience member misunderstanding a concept or even confusing them further.
● Know your audience — what type of person are you trying to engage, and create content based on this, but never assume too much?! You might sometimes be surprised by how much people know about a subject, or just because a person says they understand what you are trying to say, this may not always be true. People do not like to admit if they are struggling. This is obviously trickier to approach in science writing, but for in-person events, take time to make spaces to allow for opportunities for your audience to use what they have learnt, to ask questions or talk amongst themselves to help them truly grasp a concept.
● Try a different approach — We all like to stick with what we know, so it is easy to fall into the trap of just using article writing or some form of lecturing to quickly get our points across. However, not everyone learns in the same way, so try and incorporate different formats into your public communication, either by mixing in some hands-on activities or quizzing, or even going full-out and putting on a show for your audience. Try not to make it seem like a school lesson. This is easier to do for in-person events, but is also possible for more traditional forms of communication, through using a mixed media approach; such as adding an explainer video or an infographic to an article.
Some ideas for different approaches to public engagement and science communication can be found on the EUSEA Science Engagement platform.
However, if you are still finding it hard to identify the jargon in your work, there are apps for that! In 2017, Ayelet Baram-Tsabari, a science-communication researcher at the Technion — Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, has developed an online “De-Jargonize” tool. that reads through your text, highlighting any technical terms, and provides a score on how readable the text for others. Below is what “De-Jargonize” thought about my opening paragraph.
Baram-Tsabari created the De-Jargonize by using a bespoke “crawler” computer program, that counted the frequency of words that were used in approximately 250,000 articles published on the BBC website, throughout 2012–2015, over 90 million words in total. From this data, around 500,000-word unique types were organised by how often this word-type appeared (for example, the word value and values are unique word types, even though they are both derivates of the same word). Commonly used words may be observed thousands of times, whereas technical terms or jargon may only appear a few times throughout these 250,000 articles. De-Jargonize can then compare any given text to this database of word, and determine how frequently these words featured on a website designed to be used by the general public.
The way we talk about science matters, and if we hope to engage the public more in research, we need to make sure that how we communicate these topics is clear but not condescending, and removing excess jargon is just one way we can clear the path a little for those who want to learn and contribute in these subjects.
Chris Styles, Project Officer, EUSEA