Your research has been published, and you know that it will change the world. You expect that the press, TV, radio and internet will pick up the wave and it will be like a tsunami – the new discovery that changes how we understand science, health, life. And then the news is out and … after a few articles and tweets, only a distant echo responds. So what has happened to that ground-breaking discovery?!
Well, it has gone unnoticed by the public, just like thousands of other fascinating scientific revelations. Why? Most likely it has been communicated in a way that is indigestible and confusing to a normal person.
We love our science so much, we want to share it in the tiniest detail – and this is where we fail even before starting. Because we are the scientists, and they — well, they are them. But hold on: what if them represents 99 percent of the population?
Want your discovery to be appreciated and understood? Stick to my 5 rules:
1. Start with a “why?” Did you know that an average attention span has gone down to 8 seconds? This is how much time you have to engage with your reader online. If you don’t pique someone’s interest in that short span, you will lose them. So maybe leaving the “payback” ‘til the very end is not the best idea as few will stick around to read it. I would say do as the best in film industry do: at least give a hint, get people curious so they stick around to see the grand finale.
2. Stick to one concept. You have to get a grip on your need to tell everyone everything. If your story is good, you can always make a sequel. Cramming in too many technically complicated concepts only confuses the reader, and a confused reader simply leaves. I am fully aware that to your research, all the details are crucial; however you need to accept that to your reader, they are probably not. Decide what your key concept is and stick to it. Draw it on a Post-it and attach it to your screen. Throughout the process, keep glancing at it and make sure you have not drifted into the next chapter of a very long series.
3. Good metaphor is your best friend. There is no better way of making someone understand your point than using a concept they are already familiar with. If you have never done it, the first time might be a bit bumpy, but once you see it working, you won’t be able to stop yourself: a human body with an allergic reaction like a country invaded by an enemy, DNA as a library, cancer as a thief. And the metaphor does not have to be bulletproof from every angle of your research; it simply has to reflect the main concept. You can try it out on a friend or a family member: when you get that “oh, I see” expression, you know you’ve got it.
Pictures – and metaphors – can bring your science stories to life.
4. Mind your language. I’m sorry but you have to cut the scientific jargon to minimum or completely get rid of it. Forget abbreviations. No more oligosaccharides, sugar will have to do. And do not even try to describe triglycerides — stick to fat. I’m not saying that the public won’t understand the term. But if someone has to dig deep to remember a term they do not use on daily basis, they will need more concentration to follow your story. Next to your metaphor, I would stick another Post-it with the objective of WHY you are trying to write about your science. Is your objective really to pack as much information as possible into a short text? Or rather to get someone engaged, stick around to read it all and take the message home? I recommend trying out The Up-Goer Five Text Editor to see how good you are in explaining concepts with simple vocabulary. Only 1,000 most common words allowed. And a good image or a diagram is worth more than a thousand words.
5. Keep it short. Let’s assume you have followed all the steps: you gave a good reason why people should read your text, focused your topic, found a perfect metaphor for your concept, made it as simple as you can. Now what? Well, check the word count. If you are within a range of 1,000 words, that is a good indication. If you are in the range of 3,000, go back to the start and get rid of at least half. Double check if you are keeping the course you chose at the beginning: your main concept. Are you going into too much detail? If there is a paragraph that you are not sure about – simply get rid of it.
I love science, and since you are here, I hope we share this passion. The gap between research and society is growing bigger by the minute. Mass media can contribute to the problem if their interest is only a good story, or a scary story to get the most clicks. Whose job is it then to get things right if not ours? Try it, and once you are hooked, there is no way back. You will want to keep on writing.