Why explaining complex issues to “normal” people can help scientists – and others – to communicate

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about complicated issues.  Helping people to explain such concepts simply – whether they’re scientists, doctors, lawyers or business people – is a key part of our media training courses.

We don’t do it because audiences are a bit dim, it’s simply because they’re not necessarily experts and, more importantly, these days, they’re almost certainly short of time.  Spending time going through tortuous detail, explaining jargon and concepts at length and including a detour around the foothills of the issue just isn’t an option.  One of the reasons why we use working journalists as trainers is that they can cut through the irrelevant detail and identify the key takeaway. As we point out, explaining something such as monetary union or the conflicts in the Middle East in 150 words that a ten-year-old could understand takes quite a bit of skill.  Yes, those Sun journalists really do earn their money.

communicate media

Keep it simple – and try explaining it to others

Now comes new research that suggests that explaining things simply to laypeople can actually help scientists to do their jobs better.  “Encouraging science students to write about their work for a non-academic audience helped them to discover and discuss different ideas within their thesis. And this, in turn, helped them to realise the importance and societal impact of their work,” writes Susanne Pelger, senior lecturer in science education at Lund University.

What non-scientists can learn from the research

She goes on: “Although scientists tend to be great at doing the research and discovering results, they are not always so great at then communicating these findings to a wider audience.” Having worked with scientists we’d agree with that.  But it’s not just those working in science.  Anyone who deals with technical issues, be they legal (and we do a lot of media skills training for lawyers), business related or concerned with technology such as AI, needs to think more widely about their subject.

As Ms Pelger explains, this latest research builds on an earlier study that she undertook in which students who wrote a “popular science article,” on their degree project were able to understand the relevance of their work to a larger audience.

Just because we’re interested in something it doesn’t mean that others are too

We naturally tend to assume that what we’re interested in is what interests the rest of the world.  Newsflash: it isn’t.  The fact is that everyone has to fight to grab the attention of their audiences and to persuade them to keep reading, listening or watching.  That’s why we try to help our clients to answer those classic questions: “So what?” and Why do I care?  The other, more pertinent question, is: “What’s in it for me?”

Helping interviewees to think “benefits not mechanics,” in other words how does this particular new product or concept help me in practical terms and make my life better rather than focussing solely on how it works is essential.  Sometimes we have to be quite blunt here but our course participants do realise how spelling out exactly what benefits it offers – and using simple, everyday language to do so – really makes them better communicators.

An interesting point

“Some of the students especially emphasised how the popular writing helped them to clarify the aim of their project,” writes Ms Pelger.  “Others pointed out how the writing made them reflect on their own knowledge and realise how much they had actually learned during their studies.”

This last point is interesting.  Often people are so used to thinking about and working on a particular issue or a new product that they forget to look at it objectively and consider how an outsider, coming fresh to it, might view it.  A friend, family member or neighbour might actually be quite surprised by it.  “Stepping outside the box,” is a bit of cliché but it’s important to make that move when you’re looking to explain something to a general audience that’s unfamiliar with it.

Talking about your own experience of exploring the issue, doing the research, suffering setbacks and then describing the Eureka moments is another way to really engage your audience and to help them to understand what you’re talking about and why it’s so important.

Telling your story to others

We recently did a message development and media skills course for an exciting tech start-up.  Helping them to put their innovation into a broader context and explain what they were doing in ways that a general audience could understand was a challenge.  However, as the short but intensive course that we’d developed for them unfolded they began to develop a clear and compelling narrative and explained what they were doing in a way that their target audiences – be they investors, partners or consumers – could really understand.  Now, as Susanne Pelger’s research shows, taking this approach really works.


Posted by Simon Brooke on at

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