How To Engage An Audience Unfamiliar With Your Field

What kind of expert do YOU want to be?

We don’t expect the average consumer of popular science to read Nature, if we expect them to read at all.

The most we can hope for is that they binged Cosmos at some point and weren’t too hammered to remember it.

We live in the so-called “information-age”. It seems like fewer people care about scientific information, statistics, or anything which you can’t learn from a Buzz Feed post. 

engage audience nextscientist

How do you think most people feel when they read directly from the source

Confused?

Uneducated?

Have we not created a culture where the ability to learn about scientific progress requires you to decipher dense and unappealing academic articles?

I’m a graduate student in Biomedical Engineering.

I spend my time reading research articles and interpreting them. Honestly, I have no idea what this article I randomly selected from a biomedical engineering journal is talking about.

If I spent an hour googling all the terms, I would eventually figure it out somewhat, but why would I bother?

The authors of the work might have cured cancer, but who else is going to know? 

Yes, the other experts, your peers, are going to understand you better than most of the general public.

But, it’s the general-public-average-joe that you want to impress. Because, they are the granters, casual pop-sci fans, election voters, and the technical experts in other fields that might have wanted to collaborate with you.

Face it: YOU are the 1%

Except that this time, it’s the other guy who’s got his pockets full of cash and politicians…

The average joe 99% has the money that pays your rent and the ability to persecute you like a sciency leper.

My point is, fellow 1-percenter, that while you may not be rich in the classical sense, you do have something special to offer: you are actively uncovering the knowledge in your unique field that will help progress humanity into a better and brighter future.

It’s time that we all got better at spreading the wealth.

This is a guide to help you understand the basic steps to talk to non-experts. To convey the exciting promise and novel intrigue of your work.

Noumenon and Phenomenon

During my first semester of undergrad at Christopher Newport University, I managed to fall in with some upperclassmen philosophy majors.

Despite what you might be picturing at this moment, they really didn’t fit the image of the starry-eyed and half-drunk hipster that the term “liberal arts major” so often conjures. Just the opposite actually.

They were an intense bunch that applied ethical and logical systems to conquering problems in law and religion.

Most of them have gone on to successful legal careers, high-powered PhD programs, and one (paradoxically a “devout Pastafarian”) is getting his Master’s in Divinity at Harvard.

As you might imagine, I was intimidated.

I was a naïve freshman looking for the approval of these god-like upperclassmen.

I identified the philosophical theories they debated fiercely as some kind of test for earning their acceptance.

I told the de facto leader of the group and my soon-to-be mentor, that I wanted her to explain one of her papers to me. I was determined to understand and gain her acceptance.

Her explanation was along these lines, hold your breath:

“These terms, Noumenon and Phenomenon, represent dichotomous elements of Kant’s metaphysical framework regarding the epistemic nature of synthetic a priori truth for elucidating the rational experience of the thing-in-itself.

engage audience girl

It took me three weeks to figure out what she meant.

I was annoyed when I learnt that her words could be translated as:

“Kant believed that we only know about things that we can experience with our five senses, but any reality that might exist beyond sensation is also beyond our comprehension, unless we have an intuition about it, like in The Matrix.”

Or, simply:

Kant could see the Matrix.

Cynically, I decided that philosophers use difficult language to belittle everyone else.

But, as I started to assimilate with the college of the natural sciences, I realized that those philosophers were not alone in that practice.

Scientists also use complicated language to explain simple. I noticed this in every research article I had to read for class.

I started to get that this habit had nothing to do with what you studied. Instead, we feel becoming a scientific expert requires us to use difficult words.

After I joined the Neuroscience program, junior year, I explained my research projects to friends of mine from the liberal arts.

At first, I realized that I too had fallen into the habits I despised, using very complicated language to impress and engage my audience.

Recalling my lessons from freshman year, I knew that I could find a way to simplify my research. I wanted other people to understand it and share a little in my own sense of intrigue about the world.

The more I tried, the clearer I started to become, and the better people seemed to understand.

And then something else happened… people actually seemed to be more interested in what I had to say about my research.

I found a way anyone could use to make their expertise accessible and engage an unfamiliar audience. I wanted to understand why this worked and what it all meant.

The art of being understood

Being understood doesn’t come from your audience being able to get an idea. They need to cherish understanding new ideas.

It’s empowering for someone to listen to you talk for five minutes and feel like they got smarter in the interim.

engage audience understand

It’s how you can explain the popularity of Khan Academy, nanodegree programs, and TED Talks at any rate.

From the audience perspective: an expert tells you something they know, something which seems complicated and inaccessible.

But, the expert breaks it down into ideas that you already know a lot about. Even though you don’t know about their idea, you realize it’s just another way to formulate things you already understood fairly well.

Because you realize that you understood the idea already, you can also associate the feelings you had assigned the basic underlying concepts to the new arrangement. In this way, you care about what you learned and who you learned it from.

This is how we get a chance to use cutting edge research and technical expertise to help change how other people relate to the world around them in a way that imparts value to you, to them, and to humanity as a whole.

How does it work then? 

How do I engage an audience, make them understand my message, even if they are unfamiliar with my field?

Let me introduce you to ELI5 in 5…

5 Steps To Engage An Audience Unfamiliar With Your Field

The way that you make people feel when they read your work has a powerful impact on your ability to garner public interest and monetary support.

If you use jargon in a way that causes your reader to feel uneducated or out-of-the-loop, it may keep you from being well-liked as a writer.

If you effectively explain a complex and interesting idea, you are going engage your audience and make them interested and empowered. As a result, you may earn yourself loyal readers and supporters.

The method I’m going to describe here is my personal summary of how to effectively use an ELI5 strategy:

ELI5 –  “explain like I’m five”

like_im_five

It overcomes a mental road block for experts, whereby they forget their audience isn’t as knowledgeable as they are.

Instead of belittling your audience with language, or talking down to them, you simply treat them like future experts who just haven’t learned the basics yet.

I developed these tools during my tenure in the college of sciences, during my two-year employment as a formal logic tutor, and during my senior year tutoring biochemistry. Great examples of well-explained ideas can be found on this subreddit which inspired me to use “ELI5” as the short-hand for the method.

Step 1: Be intriguing and valuable

Who is your audience? What makes them excited, amused, or afraid? Think about how you can tailor your communications to fit their needs.

engage-audience-intriguing

If I am trying to sell the idea of funding my tech start-up, I won’t give a venture capitalist the same pitch that I give to a member of a NASA grant-awarding committee.

The venture capitalist wants to hear about revenue projections, while the NASA employee will focus more on the technology.

Give your audience what they want. The measure of value for your writing is going to be based on how they receive it.

Step 2: Summarize your message

Draft a writing sample that encapsulates what you hope to explain, and then summarize it.

It can be hard to limit yourself to a clear and concise explanation of your work.

Being used to telling it through wordy arguments laden with jargon and complex language, doesn’t help.

I prefer to write out everything I am trying to say in several full paragraphs. It helps me to feel like the kernel of my idea is all out on the page.

After I feel like I get all the important bits out, I cut the parts that don’t contribute to my purpose. Think of anything that is redundant or could have been said with fewer words.

You should shrink each paragraph to one sentence that conveys what you are trying to explain. Neat and presentable.

It gives your reader the sense that they are seeing something of value.

Clear and to the point is the best way to be in this kind of writing. Compile these sentences and use connecting phrases like “in addition” or “this led us to realize” etc.

For example, all I wrote above can be summarized as:

“To write concisely: fully explain your thoughts in paragraph form, distill each paragraph into an easily understood sentence, and then string these sentences together to create a logical flow of ideas.”

Step 3: Jargon out, use 2-syllable words

Replace any jargon with reader-friendly alternatives. Do not worry if something seems too simple. You are doing it right if you get that feeling. Keep going.

The main challenge of ELI5 has nothing to do with your audience. If you cannot find another way to explain an idea than to use familiar jargon, you don’t understand your work well enough.

For example:

“Miles Davis popularized the Dorian key center during his hard-bop pioneering phase.

Instead, say:

“A famous jazz trumpet player inspired other musicians to adopt a new sound that used a special series of tones which evokes both somber and upbeat moods in a listener.

He did this during a time when he pioneered the integration of that new sound with an older style that had a peppier mood to it to create a new style of jazz.”

Step 4: Jargon back in

Add the essential Jargon back in and teach it to the reader

engage audience back in jargon like Godfather

This is part of how you are going to help your reader become an expert too!

To use the previous example, instead of saying:

“A famous jazz trumpet player inspired other musicians to adopt a new sound that used a special series of tones which evokes both somber and upbeat moods in a listener.

He did this during a time when he pioneered the integration of that new sound with an older style that had a peppier mood to it to create a new style of jazz.”

You can say:

“Miles Davis, a famous jazz trumpet player, inspired other musicians to adopt a new sound which used a series of tones, also called a scale, that could evoke both somber and upbeat moods in a listener, called the Dorian scale.

Miles did this during a time when he was viewed as pioneering the integration of the Dorian scale with an older style, called Be-Bop, which had a peppier mood to it, to create a new style called hard-bop.”

Since you taught the reader about the terminology, you can keep writing with the assumption your reader understands enough to follow along.

For example, this could be a reasonable next sentence:

“Miles debuted his hard-bop style on the seminal 1959 record, Kind of Blue, shocking audiences around the world with songs like “So What” and “Blue and Green” that heavily incorporated Dorian scales to create a unique sound that would quickly eclipse be-bop altogether.”

Step 5: The pitch

Summarize your paragraph in one short topic sentence that you can use to introduce your idea.

engage audience pitch

For example:

Miles Davis, the famous trumpeter and pioneer of the hard-bop genre, changed music forever in his 1959 release of his quintessential album, “Kind of Blue.”

Davis inspired other musicians to adopt a new sound which used a series of tones, also called a scale, that could evoke both somber and upbeat moods in a listener, called the Dorian scale.

He did this during a time when he was viewed as pioneering the integration of the Dorian scale with an older style, called Be-Bop, which had a peppier mood to it, to create a new style called hard-bop.

He debuted his hard-bop style on the seminal 1959 record, Kind of Blue, shocking audiences around the world with songs like “So What” and “Blue and Green” that heavily incorporated Dorian scales to create a unique sound that would soon-after eclipse be-bop altogether.

By exposing the jazz world to his revolutionary musical vision, Davis inspired other jazz players to be more experimental, to try new sounds, and, above all else, to be cool.

Sometimes called cool jazz, this shift away from the safety of be-bop marks the beginning of modern jazz, and the end of mainstream jazz fandom. Though some jazz has persisted since that time, it has existed mostly as a novelty or on the fringe of musical society, a niche market with a tiny, but fiercely loyal, fan base.

Choosing to write for others

As a graduate student, PhD, or whatever kind of scientist you are, you need to sharpen your communication skills if you want to be understood by the average reader.

With the ELI5 strategy, you will be able to communicate your ideas more effectively, a vital part of grant writing, working with faculty from other departments, partnering with business and industry leaders, and many other essential applications.

I am not saying that experts lack the ability or awareness of issues with your own writing.

But you, like any other writer, can stand to benefit from having a simple strategy for effectively communicating complex ideas.

Let’s all get a little better at putting our knowledge in the hands of people that want to use it to make their lives, and the world as a whole, better.

About Henry Miller

Henry Miller is a graduate student in the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University at Buffalo, specializing in Cell and Tissue Engineering. His goal is to promote public interest in science by reaching out to casual readers and to fellow scientists.

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  1. […] scholars to summarize the “so what” of their research and it requires scholars to engage with an unfamiliar audience, who might not read it in an academic publication. The sharing of research goes beyond the SPARC […]