“So, what do you do?” Explaining your research to a variety of audiences.

“So, what do you do?”

Since starting my PhD I’ve been asked this question countless times by all types of people. At first, the sound of those five words would trigger a mild bout of palpitations and I’d frantically search the questioner’s face for some clue as to how I should pitch my answer. Do I go all out with details of my research or do I scale it back and risk sounding like I’m the one with no idea about what I’m doing? In the end I’d more often than not end up with a combination of both and a forced smile on my face hoping there would be no follow-ups.

Meeting someone for the first time and explaining what you research shouldn’t be a mildly stressful experience. So to combat the palpitations I decided to create spiels suitable for every occasion. These currently range from “I’m a palaeontologist! …Yes, *rolls eyes* like Ross from Friends”, to a more in-dept story of my research with a little bit of justification thrown in for good measure.

One of the first opportunities to implement my effective communication skills (or as I discovered, lack thereof) and explain my research to a group of new faces was at my department’s weekly discussion group on the very first week of my PhD. All newbies and oldies alike were asked to explain their research (fossil organism, methods, location) by means of a hand-drawn picture on a scrap of paper. Below is what I managed to come up with…

The diversification of tetrapods in the form of a work of art.
The diversification of tetrapods made into a work of art

If you can’t tell from my beautiful drawing, I’m looking at the diversification patterns of tetrapods using data from across the globe (but you totally got that, right?!). I’ll admit my Palaeozoic tetrapod looks suspiciously like an algal-encrusted early mammal (teeth were added later for dramatic effect) and I should have labelled my axes, but I think the rest of drawing gets the point across when accompanied by an explanation. I’ll also admit that I only managed to stumble through a haphazard explanation of what I scrawled, passing the baton quickly on to the next person at the table. I hadn’t yet decided the best way to explain my research concisely, nor the correct words to use while trying to do so. It needed more work

This exercise among other palaeontologists was great practice, but it wasn’t long before I was speaking with people who weren’t at all familiar with the topic of quantitative palaeobiology but still wanted to hear about what I worked on. I realised that what I struggled most with was finding that middle ground between Ross Geller and full-on jargon. Explaining my topic to a non-specialist but interested audience was going to take some work.

In my endeavors to fill this gap, I came across the brilliant Up-Goer 5 text editor. Inspired by an ingenious xkcd comic and created by geneticist Theo Anderson, the editor only allows you to use the ten hundred most used words and has already struck a cord with many scientists wishing to communicate their research to those unfamiliar with the field. Naturally I had to have a go, but as ‘fossil’, ‘evolution’, ‘diversity’, and (annoyingly but not surprisingly) ‘tetrapod’ are not among the 1,000 most used words I knew it would be a challenge.

Screen Shot 2015-11-30 at 16.36.48
Attempting to explain my research using the 1,000 most used words

It stills needs a lot of work (particularly my crude explanation of sampling standardisation in the second paragraph!). I could have spent an entire day perfecting it but even only 20 minutes showed me how many uncommon words I need to use to get my point across concisely. Sometimes jargon is useful, but when accompanied by a convoluted description it becomes very unfriendly indeed. Up-Goer 5 is on the extreme side of the effective communication spectrum and I don’t think I’ll continue using such a over-simplification, particularly since I’m sure everyone is familiar with the concept of a fossil! It did however give me some food for thought.

Being able to effectively communicate what my PhD is about has helped me take ownership of my work and I even feel a pang of pride when I give my little spiels! Perfecting my wording will be most useful when I return to my hometown for Christmas in a few weeks as I know I will be bombarded with this question many times over. Some people will be content with “Oh, I work with fossils” while others will want to know more. Armed with my concise explanations I’ll be able to confidently describe what I work on without fear of a raised eyebrow or confused stare. I think now I’d even be delighted to receive follow-up questions! (Although I am strongly aware that most follow-ups will be about why I do what I do, but justifying playing around with fossil data on my computer all day remains a story for another day!)

Why not give Up-Goer 5 a try yourself and see if it can change the way you talk about your research to a non-specialist audience?