How you explain your science is important
Why Should I Care?
They say that only 10 other scientists in the whole world can understand your science. I believe this is true. Biology is a complicated subject. How do you go about explaining what you are doing? How do you make people care? As a researcher, you have to inspire and motivate others to work with you, invest in you, or get on board with what you are attempting. In the day–to–day struggles to make progress in the lab, how do you even begin to tackle this task?
Recently I was at a stem cell symposium at the University of Wisconsin. Several speakers went up to the podium to present their research. Some started right in on what they were doing, with no explanation as to why it was important to humanity. This is a huge mistake. If you do not have a good reason why, no one will care at all about the sentences that follow. Another grand mistake was to assume that the audience was familiar with the general terminology. It takes only a few seconds to define some of the basic terms and how they will be used. Always know your audience. What do they already know, what do they need to know? The answer in the case of complex science, is “assume they know almost nothing”.
The most successful presenters used analogies, showed visual aids (including videos, photos, and charts), and were expert storytellers, engaging the audience in a compelling manner with how the world might be a better place once their research was realized. Some used humor to break the ice, allowing the audience a moment of levity to relax and digest the more difficult concepts. One presenter had a chart that looked more like a roller coaster than anything else. He said, “roller coasters may be fun for most, but for a diabetic these upward and downward swings are a nightmare”. Everyone got it. He had defined his “why” clearly and succinctly with a compelling visual aid. Diabetic glucose swings are awful, and we need to fix it. Below is a list of 3 actionable steps to help you move your science to the next level.
1. Making Stories That Sell Science
Now this concept may seem counterintuitive. Making up a story to help get ahead seems wrong at first. Science should stand on its own merits. No embellishment is needed, right? Or is it? No, you shouldn’t make up things up that are not true. Not at all. What does need to happen, though, is that others have to understand how your work could affect them once realized. This takes some creativity and some storytelling abilities, as well as some extrapolation. What would life look like, if diabetics no longer needed painful injections each day, because a stem cell therapy was able to rebuild what was broken? What if a heart attack patient no longer needed to worry when the next attack would hit, because tissue engineering or nanotechnology was actually able to repair the damaged heart tissue, rather than just push aside symptoms with drugs?
Your hopes and dreams for your research need to be part of your narrative. You can be completely clear about what limitations you are facing. You can describe the hurdles you see and your best hope and direction for how you plan to solve these problems. Stories however, help your audience remember. They help convey your vision and make them want to help you to make it real. People will not remember anything about you if there is not something in it for them, which brings me to the next point, benefit emphasis.
2. Me, Me, and More Me: The Art of Benefits Emphasis
Humans are wonderful creatures. They can be kind and caring. They can be thoughtful and intelligent. They can also be a bit selfish, especially when their survival is at stake. Almost everyone, when pressed, will choose their own survival over others if they have to make a choice. So, how does this apply to you as a life science researcher?
“What’s in it for me?” This question often runs through people’s minds, whether consciously or unconsciously. Life science researchers are no exception. How your research could possibly fit into your listeners’ situation is part of what makes your science of interest to them.
Connecting the dots is what we do. This game is about putting the puzzle pieces together, to learn how biology works so that we may intervene and save lives. Hoarding your own puzzle piece can be counter-productive. Sure it may be proprietary, and it could be your ticket to financial security. It could also change the world if coupled with someone else’s research. Your puzzle piece could be the missing one that solves one of life’s greatest mysteries. So how do we partner with others and share the knowledge without hurting our own financial well-being? Many scientists rely on the NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) to make partnerships with others. Others give overly general talks when asked to present, encouraging others to pursue details during a second or a third encounter. How you tool your initial presentation will determine whether a second encounter is even asked for. Your first presentation has to inspire the desire to know more.
3. Visual Aids, Videos, and Animations
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an animation has to be worth a billion. You can tell someone how an organic chemical process happens all day long, but actually seeing it unfold in real time will be the thing that drives the point straight into their long term memory. Anything that I have ever taken away from a complex lecture on anything, has usually been the result of a well-presented animation or video. Most people can understand and remember far better in pictures than they can in words. This does not mean that we need to present everything like it was written for a preschooler. What it does mean is that supplemental material including photos, videos, and animations should be included to drive the point home.
Savvy investors and potential partners want details. They want you to present them with data, a well designed study, estimated outcomes, costs, timelines, and ROI projections. How this data is presented long after you speak to them may determine how well they recall what you had to say. Pictures, photos charts, and animations have staying power. Enough said.
The Difference Is in the Details
So what does this mean for you? Well, the difference between helping the world with your science and not being able to could lie in the balance. If you are unable to convey what you are doing in a compelling manner, no investor will give you the money required to proceed. If you cannot make another researcher understand what you are doing, as your concepts are too complex, then you may not be able to find partners that can take your work to the next level. Explaining things well could even mean the ability to continue your work at all. The stakes are high. Humanity is waiting for the next big discovery. We owe it to all those who are suffering to hasten our work, to communicate well with others, and to put together the puzzle as quickly as possible. How we talk about our work matters. For the terminal patient who is waiting for the treatment that could save them, this is what we need to do. That person could be a mom, a sister, or a dear friend. It could also be you.