Emily Maffett

When you’re an expert in your field, it can be hard to see where you’re going wrong when it comes to communicating with others who aren’t. This is especially true when communicating about science and technology—you use specific terminology because they are the correct terms and they make perfect sense to you. While it’s true that accuracy is critical, in order for your audience to understand you, you also have to speak their language. The question is, how?

When I was teaching an Introduction to Composition course in graduate school, I asked myself this question on a regular basis. After preparing an assignment, I would give my students directions that I thought were crystal clear; they were grammatically correct, thorough, and aligned with the department goals and objectives. And then I would hear, “I don’t understand.” At first, I was at a loss for how to reach these students in a different way—where was the disconnect?

Fortunately, arriving at a solution doesn’t always mean going back to the drawing board (or chalkboard). But it does mean rethinking the way you are communicating with your audience. Once I learned and began utilizing the following techniques, I was able to reach my students on their level. As a technical communicator, I’ve come to rely on these steps when communicating about complex scientific and technical topics as well:

  • Know your audience. In order to make your writing accessible, you must first know who you are writing to. Will they understand industry terminology or do you need to provide additional background information? Do they prefer to read white papers or look at infographics? By asking yourself a few questions about who you are writing to, you can better anticipate—and meet—their needs.
  • Relate to your audience. Audiences who are able to relate the subject matter to their own experiences are much more likely to stay engaged and, ultimately, to understand the point you are trying to make. While they may not understand the materials science behind dielectric electro-active polymers, they may be more interested in the material once you explain that it may be used, for example, to develop flexible smart phones. This not only sparks their immediate interest, but gives them a clear memory to associate with the information to help them recall it later.
  • Write clearly—and concisely. In the words of the oft-quoted Strunk & White, “omit needless words”—particularly when you are working with an audience that is unfamiliar with your topic. Remember that although you know a great deal about your field, it is important to focus on what is most important, rather than providing an overwhelming amount of detail. Including too much information or material that isn’t relevant can confuse your audience and cause them to disengage.

As we struggle to get the next generation of innovators excited about science and technology, rethinking how we communicate about these fields will play an important role. Accessible, audience-focused communication can help spark a more active national dialogue around science and technology. And who knows? Maybe you’ll help strike up the conversation that inspires the next big idea.