Communicating Science to Nonscientists: Ideas Learned From Jeremy Nathans

Jeremy Nathans, a neuroscientist and exceptionally talented speaker, spoke to small group of scientists, including me.

Teaching by example, he gave four talks aimed at four different (imagined) audiences: the president of the University, a kindergarten class, a high school class, and a college class.

I came to the talk having some opinions on this topic: I gave about 8000 science presentations at the Corning Museum of Glass to varied audiences, and I’ve been organizing outreach activities for Grades 6-12 for many years. But I learned a lot from Dr. Nathans. Here are ideas I particuarly liked.

Know your customer: nonscientists come in all shapes and sizes.

Use a variety of metaphors. For example, in disease, use the analogy to auto mechanics. If you know nothing about how the car works, your ability to fix it is extremely limited.

Tell a campfire story. If you can capture their attention, they start wondering, “What are you doing? And why?”

Simplify the math to the point where your listener could re-explain it.

Provide a “gut feeling” (a reference point) for any numbers you use.

Explain scientific notation if you use it! (“The little number is the number of zeros.”)

Inspire with pictoral analogies.

If you asking for money, don’t forget to mention why it will “take five years” and why it hasn’t already been done by someone else.

Resist the temption to present the tiny little weed that you are working on. Talk about what is exciting in the field.

The point: Science is a method. Reinforce that.

The above are gleaned from my notes on Dr. Nathans’ talk, which is now six month past.