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 In Data Journalism, Data Storytelling, Experts, How To

I have attended many academic conferences where ideas, results, and breakthroughs were communicated in incredibly dense scientific jargon. In specialized fields, we often wear very specific and particular terms as a badge of honour. The status of our work is elevated by how difficult it is to understand.

Whether or not this is good for academia is a debate for over a beer. But there’s no question that scientific jargon is terrible for getting a wider audience interested in what you do.

Removing incomprehensible technical terms from your data story is an essential skill for any researcher hoping to garner the public attention their work deserves. Using scientific jargon may be highly rewarded in academic journals. But in lay media, it is highly problematic.

Last week, we talked about how to tell a compelling scientific data story. Let’s build on that a little more and discuss why and how to remove scientific jargon from your story.

It Tells People You’re Not Talking to Them

How is your audience expected to pay any attention to your work at all if they don’t even realize you want them to?

Imagine you’re in a crowded place, with lots of people talking about a variety of subjects. Now imagine that some of the speakers are addressing the room in your native tongue, while others are using languages you do not speak. Who are you listening to?

To capture someone’s interest, you must first ensure they know you’re addressing them. Scientists frequently use an internal language that might as well be a foreign tongue to non-experts. Sometimes it’s out of habit. For others, there is a hidden social pressure to demonstrate the nuance and complexity of your work — using nuanced and complex terms.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But relying on scientific jargon to communicate the value of your work tells Joe Public that you’re speaking to other scientists — not to him.

Non-Experts Don’t Understand You

If you want your work to mean something to the public, you must focus on making your research tangible — and comprehensible — to an audience beyond your peers. This wider audience includes the people who need to:

  • Apply your results
  • Make decisions based on your results
  • Pass laws and legislation driven by your results

The urge to impress is real. (And justified — you’ve worked hard.) But those people who will help convert your work from academic knowledge to real-world results need to know what you’re saying.

Lose the urge to show off or convey your intelligence. Replace it with a drive to tell your story effectively.

Ditch the Scientific Jargon

“Canorhabditis elegans have been found to use a lysomal switch to trigger proteostasis renewal in the immortal germ lineage.

This is not a sentence most people care about, want to read, or even understand.

“Scientists have found tiny worms that clean their eggs in a way that might make it possible for your cells to be repaired.”

This version is interesting and understandable to the average reader. And it’s the version you need to stick with if you want to attract a wider audience.

So how do you clear your story of the scientific jargon that’s killing interest in your work?

Read your story backwards.

This forces you to focus on individual words rather than the narrative as a whole. Read through your story with an eye to spotting words that are too technical or have a different meaning outside of your specific field.

Use easy-to-understand language.

Christina Chan-Park offers a helpful table of words commonly used in research that are misinterpreted by the public. The most common example of these is theory. While scientists use the word to convey a generally accepted understanding, a surprising percentage of the public still interpret it to mean “a hunch.”

Remember who you’re talking to.

It doesn’t matter how fluent you are in how many languages — it only matters if you’re speaking the right language for your audience. Will you research improve public health? Make that clear. Have you made a technological breakthrough? Explain it in terms that mean something to the people it will help. Your data story isn’t about gaining personal recognition as much as it is about conveying the value of your work.

Get help when you need it.

Data storytelling isn’t everyone’s forte. Are you struggling to share your research without scientific jargon? At Datassist, we can help you tell your story in a way that will educate and engage. Get in touch with us today.

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