Saturday, 4 August 2012

Seven tips for scientists talking to a wider audience

There was a palpable charge in the air at today's meeting of the Huntingdonshire Business Network!  A clash of two cultures – science and complementary medicine threatened to arise when the validity of one was queried by the other.

As a professional scientist now active in a totally unrelated business world, this reminded me of my rapid adaptation from talking to non-scientists before and after the transition.

Hence my personal seven tips for scientists talking to a wider audience.

Before that, I would like to describe the realities of the world beyond the safety of a science or technical environment

The majority of the population do not understand science & technology.

In the UK have the proportion of our workforce working in science and engineering is about 35% according to figures in 2010. Gender bias and self selection at an early age sadly mean that only 5%  of the science and engineering workforce are women (“Statistics: Women and men in science, engineering and technology. The UK statistics guide 2010” ). So two thirds of your audience is likely to have only a very limited knowledge of your area of expertise from the start. The remainder are likely to equally ignorant of your specialism.

Most people do not think like a scientist.

Science uses evidence based research with a unique twist: You (and your competition) use reproducible experiments to test any hypothesis in your field of interest. In my experience, this has two consequences. 1. If someone makes a statement – I immediately look for a counterargument to test its validity and 2. If sufficient evidence against my hypotheses is presented, I will accept that a change of ideas is needed – even if grudgingly!

The rest of the world does not necessarily think the same way. Ideas are sometimes readily accepted if they fit within a world view and facts might be ignored if they do not suit. This is the main stumbling block for scientists trying to communicate outside of their field. Presenting ideas or evidence in a scientific way does not necessarily result in people accepting them.

Science is seen as just one of many world views

The practical aspects of science and technology mean that people trust their car's engineering and their conventional medicine of their GPs and hospitals. They might also have a belief in one or more gods, astrology, The Only Way is Essex, personality tests and business management systems. They will be influenced by culture and preconceptions about gender and race. What's more, they can even hold  several totally contradictory views simultaneously.

Even scientists are not immune from this. The mathematical giant Newton's other interest was alchemy. Conan Doyle believed in the incisive rationality that lead to Sherlock Holmes and forensic science – and in fairies. Whilst non-religion and atheism are especially prevalent amongst scientists,  estimates suggest between 30% to 50% believe in God or gods.

So, faced with a potential audience that does not understand science, has its own often contradictory world views and may not be predisposed to change them. How DO you address them in a way that will be heard?

Seven tips for scientists talking to wider audiences:

  1. Accept that people may have different world views. You do not have to agree or condone their views. In most instances you can just respect that they have them.
  2. Make clear that your views are expressed within a science or technical framework. “This is my background and the way I approach the subject” is a good way to make it easier for an audience to listen more receptively.
  3. Do not aim to prove the other party wrong. This is the fastest way to put up barriers. Avoid words such as “but”, “however”, “nevertheless”. They immediately raise resistance. You can disagree or agree to disagree. Phrases like “my personal view” or “the view of … is” allow you to reiterate what your position is without being confrontational.
  4. KISS (Keep it simple, stupid). Try to have a clear simple, message or point. Assume no prior knowledge by the audience right from the start. The ideal is where your audience can leave with a clear memory of your key message.
  5. Use positive language where possible. True passion and excitement will keep your audience engaged. Remember that whenever you talk as a scientist to non-scientists, you are an ambassador for science. 
  6. Make sure you know your facts and know your limits. Both generally earn respect from an audience.
  7. Be true to your values. Points 1 to 6 are all about accommodating and adapting to your audience. This does not mean that you cannot draw a line where there is an obvious conflict with your own values. 

Returning to the frisson at the Huntingdonshire Business Meeting – how did the situation pan out there today?

It immediately became apparent that we had as many different world views as people in the room – with all joining in the lively conversation. Some were more sympathetic to the  alternative healing cause, others leant towards science. God and spirituality were thrown in the mix as well as pragmatism - “how you get there is less important than that it produces the desired result”.

The overall tenor of the meeting was however to find a conciliatory solution.  In the end we acknowledged that we all had different views. Situation defused, we went on to a gentler, more entertaining second half of the meeting, with more insight about our friends and business colleagues.


  1. I was there and very glad of it. To reiterate what is obvious from Chris'article I'll just borrow the words of Freddie Mercury from a particular Queen song. "It was a worthwhile experience"