“So, what do you do?”
It’s one of the first questions people ask when they meet you. For many, a simple response suffices: “I’m a market researcher”, or “I work at Company X,” or “I do corporate accounting” and the conversation moves forward. But for those of us in technical fields like science & engineering, our abridged answer to “what do you do?” usually invites a follow up inquiry, to which our rejoinder is something to the likes of — what I used to say, “I study the efficacy of engineered zinc finger nucleases.”
That’s the point where the eyes glaze over. As an early-career scientist, this glassy-eyed response to my scientific endeavors was particularly irksome.
Unfortunately, technical knowledge is seldom a stimulating area of conversation. Discussing anything remotely scientific is a tight-rope walk between dangerous or condescending oversimplification, and mind-numbing esoterism. As such, it’s no surprise that most “technical” discussion has remained restricted to “technical” circles for millennia.
Nevertheless, we live in the Digital Era—no longer is specialized knowledge limited to discussion in exclusive talks and elite circles. In today’s environment, being able to effectively communicate complex information is an important skill everywhere from the workplace, to Twitter. Honing down on three core strategies will dramatically improve your success in explaining complex or technical subject matter to broader audiences:
1. Lose the jargon
“It was like s/he was speaking a whole different language.” We’ve all heard this descriptor before, usually following a particularly dense & hard-to-grasp lecture or presentation. A consequence of the (albeit, highly-efficient) silo-based management models that define most organizational structures is that we tend to spend most of our lives within communities of varying size & geographic distribution, consisting exclusively of specialists like ourselves. Almost universally, this clan of colleagues and collaborators will develop their own dialect: inventing and redefining words as needed to accelerate information transfer & mutual understanding within these circles.
However, this shared lexicon quickly becomes an impediment when attempting to explain supposedly simple concepts within our individual specialties to broader audiences. The immediate solution that comes to mind is to begin to define these different terms, which is the approach many communication specialists will recommend. But that is often a mistake. It is the literal equivalent of asking someone to either (a) learn a wholly new language (or dialectical slang, at least), or (b) constantly refer to a glossary of terms, simply in order to be part of a conversation.
Specialized terminology is purposeful within academic & technical circles: it condenses communication through a common language. But when communicating non-technical audiences, trying to speak their language is generally a far more successful approach. This is where the use of analogy, simile, and metaphor are particularly helpful; but be wary—use these artfully & meticulously. Translating vocational knowledge in layperson language is a tightrope walk between dangerous inaccuracy & insulting oversimplification (eg. don’t reduce CRISPR-Cas9 technology to aimless ‘gene scissors’ without further elaboration).
2. Pictures over paragraphs
There is a good reason technical books are peppered with elaborate diagrams. Where words will not suffice, visuals go much farther. Surveys found 70% of respondents prefer illustrated learning materials, and 85% learn & retain better from visuals.
Moreover, engaging human attention is harder than ever before: The Internet Age has produced a generation of word skimmers and information winnowers; our human attention span is now less than that of a goldfish: dropping from 12 seconds at the dawn of the new millennium, to just 8 seconds in 2016. That comes as no surprise; we take in 34 gigabytes of information, outside of work, every day.
Fortunately, visual content is tried and true approach to engaging all audiences. According to 3M, visuals are 60,000× faster than written word in getting your point across, which explains the increase in use of visuals by 142% and 400% (respectively) in news and literature.
Going further than just flowcharts and graphs is easier than ever before thanks to a growing suite of free and freemium tools available online (eg. Somersault 18:24’s free libraryof Science & Medical Illustrations). Using eye-catching, immediately-recognizable imagery can quickly explain and illustrate complex technical processes—often without the need for any specific terminology.
3. Brevity is wit.
Get to your point as quickly as possible. In technical fields, “the process”—whether that is engineering development or laboratory research, is usually the focal point of attention & effort, whereas the result is merely a consequence, but in all other spheres of presentation, the opposite is true.
Of course, there will be some explanation & teaching necessary before getting to the core discovery or conclusion. However, it is essential to avoid wandering into the tangential exploration classic in literature reviews & lectures, and instead arrive as quickly as possible at the call-to-action or overarching topic. At the same time, do not undersell the complexity & importance of what is being explained. Some simple principles to follow—
- While data may be a head rush for you, the non-techie is going to be less enamored by a bunch of statistics and random facts. Try to only include numbers if you can directly link them to something they need to know.
- Similarly, avoid weaving in connected points that may bring up controversial or open questions that are not essential to the primary theme or topic—this will only leave the audience distracted in ponderings of unrelated matters.
- Level the playing field up-front. In acknowledging the importance of the audience’s own specialized knowledge & giving them opportunity to engage intellectually (eg. leaving time to ponder rhetorical questions, esp. in spoken & video mediums), the subject matter becomes more approachable and less intimidating.
Most importantly, being realistic in how far the audience can move or learn in one session is essential to preserving impact. Sometimes incremental progress is better than what may seem like a torrential flood of information to those who are unfamiliar with the subject.
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Explaining complex, vocational topics to broader audiences is a task that scientists, engineers, philosophers, and thinkers have struggled with for centuries. However, being able to effectively communicate technical information effectively is essential to building personal brand & authority, fostering collaboration & knowledge dissemination, and overall, having a greater impact in the global community. Following the aforementioned three principles is a surefire approach to successfully engage broader audiences with technical knowledge.
This article was written by Vip Sitaraman, a Career Advisory Council member at UT Health San Antonio.