There’s always a debate about science AND communication, yet to me the two are integral.
In today’s fast-moving, status-update world, there has never been a more important time to communicate well. This was the key theme of a panel debate I was on with the ABC’s Bernie Hobbs and QIMR’s Kirsten MacGregor.
Science is complex!
I was a scientist, and now I write about science, so I appreciate that all science is complex. But never underestimate the value of being able to tell someone about your work in one or two sentences.
Years ago, a good friend told me a story about a light switch, and it’s always stuck with me. It goes something like this:
If you ask an electrical engineer to tell you how a light switch works, they’ll tell you about the wiring diagrams, the complexity of AND, OR and NOT gates, how electrons flow down a particular circuit when the correct contact is made, and how the electrons are turned into light and heat within the bulb, causing the bulb to emit light.
But, when I ask the question of how a light switch works, what I really want to know is that if I press the switch the bulb will light up.
That’s what matters to me; that’s what I can see, that’s what’s tangible, and that’s as deep as most people need it to be. Once I have that concept in my head, if I want to explore deeper I can start to think about what’s behind it, but until I know that, wiring diagrams, electrons and circuit gates have very little meaning to me.
And so it should be with talking about your science. All science has an end goal, a wider concept to which it applies, so you just need to find it. It sounds straightforward on paper, but it’s amazing how easy it is to become lost in the detail of your work and forget about the bigger picture, and it’s amazing how many scientists focus on the detail first.
The media uses this light switch strategy all the time with headlines and the inverted pyramid style of writing because it draws people in. So, next time someone asks you about your work don’t say ‘it’s complex’, try and think of the light switch element in your own work, and see if you can get your research down to the length of a status update!
Not sure how? Ask us!