Are You Ready for Your Public?

man falling asleep while readingThis week, the Guardian Science Desk posted an article suggesting that science writing is boring.

As someone who teaches science writers, I have to admit, they’re right. And I’d like to expand the list to include the other subject matters that I work with. It’s not just science writers who have difficulty making their subject compelling for an online audience. Accountants, business managers, CEOs, IT professionals, researchers of all stripes, software developers – in other words, most subject matter experts have difficulty communicating in a way that is interesting and readable to people outside their own discipline.

I was not, therefore, surprised to see the Guardian declare that two blogging sites (Futurity and The Conversation) maintained by scientists for the general public were not terribly readable, and I was delighted at their suggestions. I was, however, shocked and dismayed at the stance taken by the commenters, which I can only describe as reclusive.

One commenter described it as a “two cultures” problem; another claimed that “science and news don’t mix.” Several blamed the journalists for not understanding science and said that they would never speak to journalists again for that reason – a fine stance to take so long as blogs and other media outlets exist where scientists and other subject matter experts can themselves communicate, and so long as they are willing to communicate in ways suggested by the Guardian that are compelling and readable to members of the general public who are interested in these subjects and want to understand.

But many of those same commenters also claimed that the tenets of journalism did not and could not apply to their discipline because science was too complicated and too riddled with caveats to be boiled down to the kind of storytelling mode that journalism requires. As a member of a discipline that has been charged with irrelevancy, I urge science writers to take this article more seriously than they have done. Continue this trend, and you will find that the growing divide between your work and the public’s understanding of your work will result in dwindled funding, a glutted job market, and eventual unemployment.

There is only one point to the work that you do, and it is not to do it. It is not to share it with other likeminded subject matter experts. It is not to advance your career.

It is to communicate the results of your work with as many people as possible both inside and outside of your field so that they can take advantage of your successes and capitalize on your failures. That is what is meant by adding to the base of human knowledge. You don’t get there by producing a piece that is only comprehensible to a tiny little guild that has been initiated.

You get there by becoming a teacher, by learning how to communicate with as broad an audience as possible. If you are in any way passionate about your subject, if you care at all about the work that you do, you will become a master communicator so that everyone from the smallest child to the most powerful leader of nations, will understand what it is you do and why it matters.

woman making presentationIf that means that you have to learn how to write like a journalist, you learn how to write like a journalist. If that means you need to learn how to speak in front of a large audience, you learn how to speak in front of a large audience. If that means you need to learn how to put together a PowerPoint presentation, you learn how to put together a PowerPoint presentation. Because communication is key!

The work you do matters not unless you can share it with others.

And that brings me to my second point, which is, as I pointed out in my comment on the Guardian blog, stop blaming other people. It’s not their fault that they don’t understand your research. It’s yours. You haven’t found a way to make it clear to them.

If they don’t understand it, it’s not because it’s too complicated, it’s not because they haven’t had the right level of education, it’s not because they’re too biased to get it. It’s because you haven’t mastered the skills of communication sufficiently to find a way to reach out to them. It’s your job to make it understandable.

Finally, and most importantly, accept the fact that people come at facts – including data, including words – from different perspectives. This is the very reason why communicating your results to the public is the final and most important step in any research project. Because after having been tied to the laboratory results for so long, anyone can get tunnel vision.

It takes someone with a broader perspective, with a base of knowledge that you don’t have, to interpret the fact set in a different way and perhaps bring about a greater connection than you alone could ever have done.

In the meantime, that will create what looks to you like misunderstanding. It isn’t. Other people are adding their own experience and knowledge base to your work. It takes a master teacher to allow that process to happen, to filter out the truly irrelevant noise, and to brighten at the new possibilities that are being engendered. Until you’re sure that you’ve reached that level, be very cautious in gainsaying your public.

They are, after all, the final arbiters of your work.

Comments

  1. I spent most of my career trying to bring incomprehensible material to a level that could be understood by novices. When I was hired to edit economic forecasts for the Conference Board, I asked whether it was because nobody else could stay awake long enough to do the job. They told me there probably was somebody else, but I was the only one they could find.

  2. Michelle, thank you for saying this. Facts are facts, but alone, they can do nothing. If we’re to put them to work in the real world, we’re going to need to understand them. Writers for the public from specialized industries need to put away what you politely called reclusiveness but I call misplaced pride, or else go back to their journals.

  3. I taught U.S. History at the eighth grade level for many years. Like science writers, history writers are often so steeped in their profession that they forget about those reading the books or articles they write. Like science and technology, history is something alive, a beacon to show us where we are headed, and warning signs to avoid the pitfalls of others who have gone before us. Technology and science are amazing, constantly changing, often filled with the delight and wonder of discovery! Like historians, scientists (who often display thintelligence rather than intelligence) should not be permitted to write for the public! Professionals in the field of writing should have that task! Why doesn’t this happen? Because “experts” in their field are so arrogant they believe they, and only they, and do the subject credit!

    • Hello William – and welcome! Like you, I’m concerned about the growing divide between subject matter experts and communicators. And as a professional communicator, you might think that I would be all for this solution – pay the professionals to do it for them! Surprisingly, I’m not. I honestly believe that historians, scientists, and other subject matter experts can and should get the training they need to become professional communicators too. For a more thorough argument, please see my post from last year – Who Will Be the Next Grammar Guru?

  4. Craig Nelson says:

    Read Bill Bryson’s ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ and marvel at how he can present complex scientific material to a general audience in an engrossing and accessible way.
    How did he do it? Well, this book took him three years to write and he obviously read a lot (there are 100 pages of references) but, most importantly, he sought interviews with eminent scientists and asked ‘dumb’ questions, like how big is the universe and how small is an atom? The answers are dumbfounding. And, in the process, he provides an historical narrative of how we have come to know the little we do know about the world in which we live, and beyond.

    • Hi Craig – and welcome! Thank you for the reference. I’m adding it to my Amazon wish list! And thank you especially for explaining the process. I’m fascinated to know how people research and write, because those are teachable moments.

  5. Science writing has a problem most other forms do not have: how far back to go? For example, how can you write about an electric field if the reader has no comprehension of what an electron or electric charge is? Chemistry becomes impossible to describe to those who know nothing about molecules. It is possible to write comprehensible science to anyone, but only at a superficial level, which gets us to, who is the audience? The worst offenders, in my view are scientists whom write what is comprehensible only to a very few specialists in their field; the average modern scientific paper is read by about three others apart from those who wrote it. The reason for it is to archive what they have done. Such papers are written with one objective – to get a score on the board, because their grants depend on them.

    The Bryson-type book goes to the other end of the spectrum; it tries to engage the general public who know essentially nothing about science, but perforce ends up being somewhat superficial. My personal belief is that if there is a specific message you wish to get across, fiction may be better, because the reader is shown, not preached to. I have tried that to get across the transport fuels problem. Whether I succeeded is another matter.

    The really difficult problem is how to communicate in the middle ground, to those with some understanding of science, but who know little of the topic to be discussed. To be useful, this has to go well beyond the superficial level, but how do you do this? I have tried. I have written an ebook about how to form scientific theories, and in Part 2 I have tried to explain reasonably advanced physics for chemists, and reasonably advanced chemistry fro physicists. Oddly enough, it was the second that was the most difficult (I am a chemist) not because I did not know the chemistry, but rather because I was unsure whether a non-chemist would make what I hoped for from it.

    Really, from experience, this is a very difficult problem, and while a lot of experts seem to be doing their best to make it more difficult, I am far from convinced there is an easy answer. The real problem is that, in my opinion, society’s future depends on doing a lot of things properly, and that means understanding science to some level. At the same time, the education system seems to be favouring a flight from science.

    • Ian – While I teach science writers, I myself am a literary scholar. Our field dates back to Aristarchus of Samothrace, a grammarian who edited Homer in the 3rd century BC in his capacity as head librarian at Alexandria. We also must ponder, how far back do we go explaining a process like textual criticism, or defining a term, like postmodernism. This is not a problem unique to science writers. And the way we resolve it is to look to the Writer’s Triangle – http://corporatewritingpro.com/tri.html.

      Once we have a clear understanding of our context and we have defined our purpose, we realize our role as the author, and we have done an audience analysis, we should know which terms to define and how much background to provide. It is the writer who attemps to shortcut that process, who ignores his context and his reader, or who assumes that all contexts are equal who continues to struggle with such problems. These are the writers you describe, who are writing for themselves alone, to get the notch on their resume that will propel them into the position they desire.

      I sympathize with your dilemma, but I believe that nonfiction can show as well as tell. Last year I interviewed Michael Lemonick – http://corporatewritingpro.com/telesummit.html – a science journalist who has written several books that do just that.

      We can communicate clearly with a few fundamental, plastic tools. I know that, not only because I’ve been doing that, but because I’ve been teaching others to do the same. I won’t claim that it’s easy. But it is possible.

Trackbacks

  1. […] to a moment to what I think Frank was asking, because Frank is a scientist, and he and I were talking about science writing. In the world of science writing as well as academia more broadly, there are two different kinds of […]

Speak Your Mind

*