If all the knowledge in the world were represented by a giant cake, then we might say a researcher specializes in one teeny tiny crumb of that cake. And by God, that researcher knows their minuscule crumb better than anyone. While their crumb is itty bitty, it’s still an important part of the cake. It holds up the crumbs alongside it, and together those crumbs hold up their corner of the cake.
It’s hard to communicate why a tiny crumb matters. Generally speaking, researchers make two mistakes. First, they immediately go into the technical details of their crumb and it confuses everyone and makes them bored. Or second, they claim that without their crumb, the whole goldarned cake wouldn’t exist and their crumb is single-handedly responsible for the magnificence of this baked good. Neither of these approaches is a good strategy.
After judging a science communication competition for early researchers in nanotechnology a few weeks ago, I decided to hone a simple model to help walk that fine line between communicating the importance of what you do – but not making unrealistic claims that raise eyebrows. If you want to communicate your complex research effectively, the absolute first step is to make people understand why it matters. They will not make the leap themselves. You must hold their hand and guide them directly to this.
First, state the big problem. You do not state that you are solving this big problem. Simply state it. Then within this big problem, explain a smaller problem. Then within the smaller problem, explain an even smaller problem (like a Russian doll, just get smaller and smaller). With each step down the chain, you must make a direct link from the bigger problem to the smaller one. Then, once you have gotten to the appropriate level as it pertains to your research, you explain how this problem can be solved and what YOU are doing to solve it. Your listeners can make the connection between what you do at a small level all the way up to the big problem, because you explained it to them. They see that you are solving a part of this big problem – and that it is really important – but they also don’t think you’re claiming anything more grandiose than what you really do.
This model works for any field. Life sciences, social sciences, humanities. It works for any discipline. Nanotechnology, engineering, anthropology. Listeners aren’t stupid; if you explain to them in a sensible, logical and clear way why a crumb matters to the integrity of some corner of the cake, they’ll get it. And once they get why it matters, then they’ll be much more prone to hear the nitty gritty details of the dimensions, texture and density of your super special crumb.