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Science. Communication. Community.

Can you explain your research in one sentence?

Summarizing research so that it can be understood by an audience of non-experts is a lot harder than it looks. Why not practice your elevator speech now?

by Ian C. Campbell


Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the most well-known science communicators, has mastered simplifying complex topics for general audiences. Unless you’re an astrophysicist, would you struggle to explain your work to him? Image: NASA/Bill Ingalls via Wikimedia Commons

Can you tell people what you do? Will they actually understand you?

At some point, every scientist, engineer, or mathematician will be called upon to describe their work to an audience of non-experts. Perhaps they have just made a big discovery and are speaking to a reporter. Perhaps they are speaking to their next-door neighbor over the backyard fence. Perhaps they are buttering up a donor who is considering writing a big check. No matter what the reason, all researchers need to be prepared to eloquently and concisely tell people what they do.

Enter the dreaded “elevator speech.”

The idea of an elevator speech is this: You’re riding an elevator alone and someone very important steps on. As the doors close, he or she leans over and asks, “So, what do you do?” You’ve got to convince them you’re not a complete schmuck before the elevator gets to their floor. Ready, set, go! Oh, and make sure it’s understandable.

As science becomes increasingly specialized and detail-oriented, it becomes difficult to explain the intricacies of your favorite chemical or equation or device without presenting a whole lot of background. But don’t lose sight of the big picture. The most important detail you can provide is not what you do but why it matters.

The Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) is running an interesting contest in advance of their upcoming scientific meeting. Researchers are invited to submit a 1-2 sentence summary of their work, written so it can be understood by a 12-year-old.

They have produced an adorable video emphasizing the need for cutting out the jargon:

Describing your work in 1-2 sentences is a lot harder than it looks, whether you’re a scientist or work in a completely unrelated profession. Big words and complex details may add precision, but they also add confusion. While the ARVO contest is only open to vision researchers, there’s no better time than the present to practice your communication skills.

Give it a try. No matter what your occupation, tell the world what you do in 1-2 sentences in the comments, or tweet it out with hashtag #WhatSciDo. We’d all love to know what you do.


2 comments on “Can you explain your research in one sentence?

  1. iancampbell_sci
    April 14, 2014

    Here’s my take on #WhatSciDo:

    I’m studying a new tool to fight blindness, hoping to stop a disease called glaucoma that makes millions of people lose their sight.

    Too general? Too vague? This is really hard! I’d appreciate any feedback.

    • JP
      June 24, 2014

      This is very good, but leaves us wondering about the “new tool”. Can you give us a hint about how it works?

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This entry was posted on April 14, 2014 by in Research, Science Journalism and tagged , , .
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