The dinner party: Learning to explain your research to a general audience can make you a better scientist

Nobel Prize winners customarily deliver two talks about their work during the official award ceremonies in Stockholm. One is a scientific statement about the research for which they have won the award and their perspective on its importance to their field. The second is the “banquet speech,” aimed at a more general audience. These banquet speeches are often remarkable examples of scientific communication and are the best refutation of the idea that it takes convoluted language to express complex ideas. Clarity is, in fact, a much harder art to master.

After interviewing a number of these exceptional people, I have become convinced that the connection between excellent science and clear communication is no accident. What links them is a style of thought that always manages to “see the forest for the trees:” the choice of just the right experiment, at just the right time, which suggests an important new model or clarifies an existing one, resolves some important debate within a field or establishes an entirely new direction for research.

Contrast this with another type of “banquet speech,” a dinner party at which someone asks you about your work. Well, what you did today was try for about the 50th time to get an experiment to work. As you fumble for an explanation, you realize that the person you’re talking to has never heard of the things you’re working on and lacks a real understanding of basic concepts like genes, signaling pathways, and transcription factors. You’re lucky if they’ve heard of the type of cell you’re working on, and why on Earth would somebody care about the biology of a worm?

You’ve been at your project so long that it’s often hard even to see the tree, let alone the forest, for all the leaves. At some point you notice that the person who asked the question has a glazed look on his face and is drinking a lot of wine.

Is there an easy solution? And if it’s true that excellent science and good communication go hand in hand, can you become a better scientist by improving your communication skills? After many years of helping researchers develop their writing and presentations, I think the answer is a resounding “yes”. While communications courses are often lumped into a broader category of “soft skills,” they ought to be regarded as central components of a scientific education. In some countries that is the case, but other educational systems – particularly in mainland Europe – scientists receive little or no help in learning “a skill that is inherent to every field,” to cite writer and educator William Zinsser.

Very few of us have the kind of mind that quickly and naturally sorts information into a clear structure and – on the first try – translates our thoughts into the linear form of language, in a way that allows a reader or listener to reconstruct complex ideas. (An amazing exception is Barack Obama; look at the word-for-word transcripts of his Presidential debates and compare both the conceptual structure and syntax of his answers with those of other candidates.) But even professional writers don’t normally have to get everything fine the first time. It’s usually fine to start with a rather scrambled draft and recover or introduce structure in revisions.

Even when you’re finished, however, there is no guarantee that your text will be suitable as a “dinner speech;” this requires something more. Explaining your science at a dinner party requires a certain style of thinking that is a sort of worst-case scenario for other communicative situations. It can be made easier by preparing properly for the task – a process that is equally important and useful when communicating with experts. That process is crucial both to successful communication and successful science.

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Most biomedical research is devoted to working out the exacting details of some biological process. Experiments generally aim to answer a very specific question, but both the question and any answer you might receive only make sense in the context of an intricate set of assumptions and models. Most projects aim to validate a particular hypothesis, or extend an existing model to a new situation, or refute it. You may be applying a new technology to quantify something that couldn’t be measured before, or using a new tool to explore a set of data. Whatever your project, it acquires its meaning through a particular type of dialogue with what scientists already know as they try to expand current knowledge to fit a new situation, or venture into unexplored territory.

Students absorb a number of models during the course of their studies, usually becoming so familiar with a framework of ideas that certain patterns become habitual, stylized, practically subconscious, and thus “invisible”. For example, the connection between DNA, RNA and proteins is so common that scientists use the same name to identify three different types of molecules, in different species, and switch comfortably back and forth between them as they discuss their functions in model organisms and humans. Along the way they often completely lose a listener who does not have the relationships of these molecules firmly in mind.

Subconscious models and structures may create obstacles as you do science because a scientist might not fully comprehend the architecture of assumptions on which an experiment is based in the first place. This might make it difficult to understand results that run counter to expectations. Does the problem lie with an experimental setup, or the way a model has shaped a hypothesis, the model itself, or some far more general assumption? It may be impossible to decide without a very clear understanding of the relationship between a question and much more general structures of thought.

Even the most fundamental links between ideas in a field may be unclear to non-scientists and hinder communication at a very basic level. When this is likely to happen, the underlying frameworks need to be exposed and articulated. This suggests a strategy for communication that can work with a range of target audiences. Below I will describe one means by which we achieve this in science writing and presentation courses.

The first step is to force students to articulate a precise scientific question as clearly as possible. Take, for example, the following: “What small molecules could disrupt the binding of a protein to a transcription factor, and what chemical/structural features permit them to do so?”

As a grammatical sentence, this can be decoded, to a certain degree, by any native speaker – but its meaning to a scientist depends on both knowing particular facts and relating them to a much broader base of knowledge. The two go hand in hand. Defining a “transcription factor” requires placing a type of protein into the context of a larger story about cell structure and behavior. “Binding” and “structural features” have to do with the chemical subunits of molecules, the three-dimensional arrangement of atoms in these subunits, and how this architecture influences a protein’s activity.

To give a sense of the meaning of this question to a non-specialist, a researcher needs to relate it to a hierarchy of more general questions, models, and “stories” that scientists agree on. There will be several possible approaches, because any given question is usually embedded in different types of schemes. For example, the interaction between two molecules is part of a “chemical” story about the features that allow them to bind. Another type of story has to do with biological functions. Transcription factors usually are usually the penultimate steps along “biochemical signaling pathways.” These information routes through the cell usually start with a stimulus at the cell surface, trigger a signal that is passed from one molecule to the next, and then alter the transcription factor so that it moves to the cell nucleus. There it docks onto DNA and changes the pattern of active and silent genes. All of these pieces of information need elaboration – the scientist’s job in a communication exercise! – and below is an example of how it can be done.

Either type of story can be converted into a hierarchical “tree” that starts with the specific form of the question and links it to higher-level themes. Each step in the list below represents a way of connecting the specific question to a more general question or a larger story:

• What chemical/structural features determine whether a specific protein can bind to a specific transcription factor?

• What proteins can bind to this transcription factor, how do they change its behavior, and what genes does it go on to activate?

• How do molecular signals or environmental factors change gene expression patterns?

• How do cells respond to changes in their surroundings during development, the onset of a disease, stress, or some other situation?

• What are the basic components of our bodies and how do they influence our lives and our health?

This process of moving from the specific to the very general provides a structure for extending the meaning of findings both “horizontally” (to other molecules and processes with similar structures and functions), and “vertically” (to more basic principles of living systems). It also provides a system that can be used when dealing with a particular target audience. Everyone is probably interested in the last question, which involves very basic aspects of life and our bodies. This provides a level at which you can “meet” the listener and guide him or her into the story in a structured way, as a sort of dialogue headed for more specific questions and answers.

After stating that you’re trying to study life by understanding its basic components – molecules – you can point out that our bodies begin as single cells that differentiate. This usually happens through a process by which cells receive molecular signals from their surroundings. Those signals begin at the cell surface and are passed along from molecule to molecule inside the cell, until they reach a transcription factor. The role of this protein is to activate new sets of genes, changing the components of cells, and thus giving different types of cells new structures and functions. The aim of your work is to understand what characteristics allow a molecule to activate the transcription factor. Why is this interesting? Well, one reason is just to learn basic things about cell functions and fates. And of course diseases often disrupt signaling pathways, and your work may help explain why this happens – as well as suggest points at which therapies can intervene.

This description simply moves upward through the tree, from the general to the specific, and it provides a structure for the story. The information will need to be enhanced, broken down into “digestible” bits, and compared to things that the audience is familiar with, using metaphors and other tools. But at least you have told a story that is logical and gets to the point – what you have actually done, and its relevance.

Where you start in the hierarchy depends on your best guess about the level of prior knowledge of your audience. If you have overestimated what they know, and start with a point that is too specific, you will lose listeners right away. When talking to biologists, on the other hand, you can assume that they already understand basic concepts like signaling pathways and their effects. They may not, however, be familiar with the specific pathway you are interested in, the molecules that are involved, or its particular biological functions. At this point you can start close to the end, with the second question in the list above.

I’ve often heard students “throw in the towel” when they try to explain their work to non-specialists: “To understand what I’m doing, you’d have to have a complete course in molecular biology.” Again, using the example of a transcription factor, it’s probably enough to discuss how a molecule is related to the activation of different sets of genes, that this changes populations of molecules in a cell, and those in turn change a cell’s form and functions. You don’t really need to explore what happens next – alternative splicing, or the many other levels of post-transcriptional regulation – to get the point across.

If you’re talking to biologists, going too far in the other direction and explaining a point like, “Cells respond to environmental stimuli” would seem silly. Saying something far too general such as, “I’m trying to cure cancer,” when what you’re really doing is studying a particular transcription factor, would be equally ridiculous. Of course your work may have implications for a disease – note all of those sentences that typically come at the end of the discussion section of a paper: “So this study suggests new potential targets in the development of rational therapies in the treatment of cancer.” But it doesn’t explain the real scientific relevance of what you have done.

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Communication is most effective when you regard it as a dialogue rather than a one-way transmission of information. The hierarchical tree suggests a dialogue structure in which you begin with a question that your target audience might really ask, or at least be interested in, and then guide them to the particular point you want to make. It also helps you make logical decisions about what information is necessary – and especially what isn’t! – in making a particular point.

There are many more elements in successful communication – including the use of powerful images and metaphors that capture the essence of a particular biological entity or process. Metaphors are crucial as scientists learn about their field and try to convey complex ideas to their colleagues. But the first step in convincing scientists to develop their communication skills depends on showing them that even the “dinner party talk” can improve their science.

The link lies in connecting the general to the specific, in relating a piece of work to a hierarchy of models and stories in which it is embedded, and here is the connection between doing better science and communicating it well. It is an essential strategy in the courses I am developing. It is always wise to clearly articulate the models and mental structures upon which a particular piece of work is based; these relationships tell you how far a particular result can be extended to other molecules, processes, or biological functions. They are equally useful in developing strategies to communicate science to just about anyone. Nobel laureates understand this very well, and we can all learn something from their example.

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