There will come a time in your career when you have to explain a science concept or issue to a nonscientist. You may be responding to an article a friend or family member posts about vaccines. You may need to write a letter to your congressperson supporting funding for basic research. Or you might be invited to write an article about climate change for your school newspaper.
You may even find yourself having to write about your scientific experiences to a human resources manager responsible for a job you are applying for. One way or another, you will have to write to the level of the audience. And you will need to write in a way that allows them to grasp technical concepts, have reason to care, be motivated to take action, or feel confident about passing on information.
Although breaking down scientific information is not easy, it can be done. We have some tips that will make your writing impactful and understandable.
Know your purpose
Whether you’re trying to convince a funding agency that your work has great potential, persuade the public to trust your vaccine, or give insight into a scientific phenomenon for a reporter, you must be certain of your purpose before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). In all likelihood, you will be aiming to get your readers to learn something, take action, gain or change a perspective, or know your worth as a scientist. Knowing your purpose before you even write your first sentence is imperative to make sure you adequately address the request, and it will help keep your writing focused.
Know your audience
Writing from the perspective of the reader is critical to effective communication. Whatever the situation might be, make sure you are tapping into your audience and their perspective. Let’s explore an example.
Suppose your research is a computational analysis of the warming potentials of fluorinated methyl species in the atmosphere, and you are applying for your first job. Here are some things to consider:
Who is your audience? What is their level of expertise? What might they already know?
It is important to assess their understanding. If you’re addressing a representative in human resources, you can expect them to have very little science knowledge. Depending on the position, a hiring manager might have a chemistry Ph.D., but they may not be familiar with your particular field.
Radiative forcing, Eckart potential function, and B3LYP vs. CBS-RAD methods may mean absolutely nothing to your reader. So if you dive right into the technical jargon and global warming potential calculations, you may lose them from the get-go. Hence, you need to elaborate with clarity and brevity to paint a clear picture for them.
To break things down using less complex terms, you can start with the basic contributions of methane derivatives to atmospheric warming, then describe your methodology and findings in basic terms. For human resources personnel who typically have little science background, you will have to keep the explanation even more simple. You may find that you have to redefine or take an even simpler approach to your writing to make the information understandable.