Thursday, September 16, 2010


My daughter is involved in a particular extra-curricular activity that has an incredible number of special terms, abbreviations, acronyms, and other words and phrases that are incomprehensible to the uninitiated. Just like Science! I have learned some of the terms, but there always seem to be more that I don't know. And no, this extra-curricular activity has nothing to do with athletics of any sort, so my ignorance is not related to my lack of interest in sports.

I will never learn all of this new activity-specific language, and that's fine. This is my daughter's activity, and it would actually be quite weird if I started hurling around the relevant acronyms in conversation.

When we were en route to visiting some relatives this summer, I said to my daughter "You know, you're going to get asked about Activity, and you should try as much as possible to avoid jargon and describe it using words that they will understand."

She was silent for a few moments, thinking about this, then said "You're right, but I'm not sure I know what is jargon and what isn't anymore. I should practice."

So we pretended that I was Great Aunt Milly and I asked her about her recent Activity activities, and my daughter started talking about this, trying but failing to avoid jargon. I listed the incomprehensible words she had just used, and she tried again. This time I made an obnoxious beeping sound whenever she jargonized, and then we both started laughing too much to continue for a while.

Later, we tried again, and she did much better, and by the time we were surrounded by Great Aunts and Not-Great Uncles, she did an excellent job of talking about her Activity, and our relatives were able to ask her questions instead of lapsing into stunned silence, which is what some people have done when she's gone into full-jargon mode in other conversations.

It occurred to me that I could use some help de-jargonizing my own descriptions of my work. I can easily give a 101-level description of my research, but in some cases (e.g., elderly family members) that doesn't work very well, probably because even the most science-phobic undergraduate has recently had some science in high school, whereas some of my relatives have not thought about even basic science concepts since Eisenhower was president.

So I started thinking about all the different 'levels' at which we need to talk about our general or specific fields of expertise; in this example, I will use Science:

- Great Aunt Millies: total non-scientists who don't know even the most basic words that we don't really consider jargon because they aren't particularly specialized are incomprehensible in this context.

- Non-scientists/non-students who can handle the basic vocabulary of science, either from K-12 classes or from watching shows on TV (or reading science fiction?) or maybe from some technical experiences related to their job of hobbies.

- Non-science faculty and administrators who read our internal grant proposals, award nominations, or other documents that are supposed to be jargon-free.

- Students in introductory-level Science classes (if not at the beginning of the term, by the end..).

- Students in more specific classes in Science.

- Science faculty or administrators who are in our department or our institution but who aren't in our specific field of research AND science faculty, students, and others who attend our invited talks at other universities (if the talks are supposed to be oriented to a general Science audience)

In grant proposals to programs in our field and certainly in articles in journals, we can typically go wild with the jargon because the people reading our text will understand these terms, although even here it is possible to go too far and use complex terms where a simpler one would suffice.

What about talking to the media? For those who aren't science journalists, I think it's best to go with the Great Aunt Milly level of simplicity, and for science journalists.. it varies.

My last experience with the media was with a science journalist who seemed to know the basic jargon of my field. Nevertheless, I kept having to decrease the Science level of the conversation because, although he knew vocabulary, he didn't really seem to know what these words actually meant in terms of processes or interrelated concepts. Although we talked for a long time and I asked him to repeat back some of the essential points (a suggestion that seemed to annoy him, perhaps understandably), the result was kind of bizarre. In fact, as I was trolling around the science news headlines, I overlooked the article about my research because the headline had absolutely nothing to do with my research. Only once I started getting e-mail about the article did I realize which headline referred to my work.

Clearly I need more practice de-jargonizing my Science speech. Fortunately, I know exactly the right person who will help me with this, most likely by making obnoxious beeping sounds when I use jargon, but that's OK.. that technique actually seems to help a bit.


Anonymous said...

Your story reminds me of a contest my husband and I had. He's works in finance, which, like science, has plenty of its own jargon. We challenged each other to explain an important concept in our respective fields to our then 5-year-old daughter. This required a) using simple words she would understand, and zero jargon, b) being interesting enough to keep her attention, and c) being brief enough for a preschooler's attention span. My husband tried to explain how mortgages worked, and I tried to explain what a gene was. I don't think either one of us had much success. But since then, that's how I've approached science conversations with Aunt Millies -- the story must be (nearly) simple and non-jargony enough for a first grader.

Anonymous said...

I make up jargon to sound smart.

Female Science Professor said...

I like the idea of explaining mortgages to a 5 year old.

Patchi said...

I've had a few deer-in-the-headlights moments and I realized I need to be able to explain my work to:
- someone's elementary school age (grand)daughter
- the UPS guy
- a taxi driver

What I hate most is the "and what are you trying to do with that?" question.

missphd said...

My PhD supervisor used to describe the types of conversations you need to be able to have situationally. There's the "elevator" conversation in which you have the length of an elevator ride to give someone a general idea of what you do. There's the "party" conversation in which you're in a situation that allows a slightly longer conversation but still not too in depth. Then there's the "over beers" conversation in which you're talking one-on-one with someone who's interested in what you do. I try to really work on my one or two liners since I find most people are really just interested in an elevator response :)

Anonymous said...

As a postdoc I was up for an award which was judged during a poster session which was held in the evening, with an open bar to encourage people to actually come to the thing (this mainly resulted in a lot of 1st year graduate students attending). Obviously, I set up my poster right next to the bar. During the course of the night, I alternately explained my poster to (a) the judges, who asked for intimate details of every aspect of the study, (b) the 1st year grad students in my same sub-field, who had general but not specific knowledge about my area of research, and (c) the bartender, a woman who - inexplicably - thought my poster was "really cool!" and peppered me with questions whenever business slowed down for the two of us. Constantly alternating between those three levels of depth was actually *a lot* of fun!

quasihumanist said...

As a mathematician, I sadly have no way of explaining most of my research to anyone who hasn't had the first year graduate course in my (broad) subfield. (Okay, with an hour, I could do it for someone who is partway through the standard upper-level undergraduate course in my subfield.)

AnonEngineeringProf said...

FSP, does your university offer media training courses? If they do, you should take them!

My university has a public relations department with a few staff members who specialize in interacting with the media. I've spent some time with them on several past news stories, learning how to speak to reporters. Based upon that, they sent me to a half-day media training course that they offer once or twice a year. It was very informative. Really helped me learn how to talk to reporters about my work.

The other thing I've been doing a lot recently has been working on govenrment advisory and standards committees. These committees tend to have a few scientists and then mostly administrators, bureaucrats, policymakers, government department heads, and perhaps a few public interest advocates. This has been a great experience, for teaching me more about how to talk fruitfully about the science to non-scientists.

Mordecai said...

As another mathematician (math grad student really) I find I can only explain what I do if I bend the rules a lot. For most conversations I basically stick to loosely conveying the intuition. Luckily there's always lots of intuition to be conveyed if you look carefully.

For example, topological spaces are "things that have a floppy, beanbag sort of shape," surjective continuous functions are a "mashing together" of the shape in question, binary operations G x G -> G I describe by talking about "kneading" an object, and so on. Mathematics in general I describe in terms of learning to speak formal languages, and talk about the weird sorts of things they lend themselves to articulating.

My track record has been inconsistent for reasons I haven't fully identified. I think part of it is that my explanations work best with a particular way of thinking that many laypeople (and many successful mathematicians) don't rely on. Perhaps also I'm not very good at it.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

We require all the grad students in our department to give a 2-minute elevator talk every fall. We dedicate one of the weekly research seminar slots for this.

Many lab group meetings the week before are dedicated to polishing the presentations of all the grad students in the lab.

The elevator pitch is an important skill that takes practice. Grad school is the place to get that practice.

Anonymous said...

I have been facing this as I teach a "First Year Seminar" class. All of the students are, as the title suggests, first year students. It's a class that is mostly the biology of infectious disease, but also includes history, economics and policy worked.

This is the second time I taught it. The first time I had what I now see was likely an extraordinary class, and we actually covered a lot of ground. This time, although the students almost all had a Biology class in high school, many did so as freshman or sophomores and they really seem to have erased everything. Fewer this time are going to be science majors.

I started with some basic assumptions, and some have proven unfounded at least for a signficant minority of the students. For example, I guess I thought an educated person would know a bacterium and a virus were different, and would have at least a sketchy idea of the difference. I also realized I use LOTs of jargon that I don't even think about, both biological and other wise. e.g., pathogenic. I thought with all the CSI shows on TV they'd have a better idea what DNA was. In our history section, I realized many did not know what a military coup was.

It's been an eye opener and I am trying to figure out exactly how to balance content with these moments of confusion. In addition to encouraging questions, I have been encouraging them them to try a DICTIONARY and also singing the praises of Wikipedia.

Mark P

Dr Spouse said...

I've just spent most of my summer learning how to do this. You can read about it on my blog...