Navigating Science Conversations with Non-Scientists: Holiday Edition

top view of a family praying before christmas dinner

By Natalie Sandlin and Rachel Gilmore

For many of us, the winter season, and the various holidays throughout, mean spending extra time with family. With this time comes the sometimes-dreaded questions: “What do you do?” or “What are you researching?” This may afford us the opportunity of discussing science-related topics with individuals who may not be so familiar with science, and rather than approaching these conversations with resistance or fear, we’ll give you some helpful tips for the best way to navigate science conversations with non-scientists. Let’s chat about it…

  1. Know your audience.

A good question to ask yourself going into the conversation is, “How likely is it that this person has encountered this information before?” If you honestly have no idea what level of understanding the other individual has, just ask! It’s as simple as saying, “Have you ever heard of [blank]?” or maybe, “How much do you know about [blank]?” This can save time and confusion for everyone.

  • Keep it relatable.

Give people a reason as to why others should find what you do interesting. People tend to be more invested in the conversation if they feel like the topic is something directly relevant to them. Consider using stories or analogies that are easy to relate to.

  • Think big picture.

Too many details can be overwhelming for anyone. I like to follow the format: issue being addressed, how we can address it, and what my contribution to the solution is. This gives enough information about the science without going overboard on the details.

  • Avoid jargon.

Always remember, keeping things simple is not “dumbing down” your science. You don’t have to over-inflate your vocabulary or get into technical jargon to appear smarter. Chances are, the people you’re talking with already think you’re brilliant anyway.

  • Listen to understand, not to respond.

When the person you’re talking to asks a question or makes a comment, be sure to take a second to understand what they’re actually saying before blurting out a response. A tip for doing this is to repeat the question back to the person in your own words. For example, “So if I’m understanding correctly, you’re asking [blank]?” This will not only force you to listen to what they’re saying but also to ensure you’ll answer the question they’re actually asking and not just one you think they’re asking. Also, tone is very important when responding. Some family members may have different views, opinions, or educational level than your own, so it’s important not to come off as judgmental or condescending. You want them to continue to engage in science after your conversation, not shy away from it!

  • Let your passion shine through.

A super easy way to get other people invested in the conversation is to show them how much you care about what you do. They likely will not remember all of the details of what you talked about, but something they may remember is your expressions or how you made them feel during the conversation. There is a reason you are invested in your project, and people want to know why you care about what you research.

  • Keep it short.

Regardless of how interesting or relevant something is, it’s best to keep your conversation short, sweet, and to the point. Let the other person lead the conversation deeper, if that’s what they want, but don’t impose a lengthy monologue of your research where it isn’t needed or wanted. Think of this as a time to practice the elevator pitch of your project, benefiting both you and the other person in this conversation. Most of all, enjoy this time you have, take a break, and relax. Happy Holidays, everyone!

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