How to Talk Science with Your Aunts?
Updated: Mar 24
In this pandemic-crazy world, there is a very high chance that your family has been overwhelmed with scientific information. That’s exactly what happened with mine. Most of this information is being bombarded at them in the news, when talking to friends, and even when checking their own cell phone apps, like Whatsapp!
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If this is the case, and you are a student or a professional in any field of science, you might be craving for the chance to explain to your aunts and the rest of your family things like: What is a vaccine? How do the Covid-19 vaccines work? Why is it important to make an informed decision about getting the vaccine? How do Covid-19 tests work? … The list is endless.
Beyond COVID related information, what about, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), climate change, gene editing? To name a few. Let us be honest, talking with family and friends who are not as familiar with science as you are might prove difficult.
On the one hand, you might not feel confident enough to explain these topics, you might fear your family does not want to listen, or you have no idea where to start. On the other hand we, as scientists, usually speak in a language that seems very straightforward to us. But, is it as clear to anybody else? Would you be able to explain to your non-science family members what it is that you are doing in the lab, using the same words you use when speaking with your lab mate?
Brief storytime. I recently decided that I was done with the overwhelming and dubious information that my family members were receiving via Whatsapp regarding Covid-19 vaccines. It was just outrageous. Long story short, I made a video explaining the basics of Covid-19 mRNA vaccines in VERY simple language and using many analogies that my aunts would find relatable. It went viral in my home country, Colombia, and rocketed me towards a new and more direct involvement with science communication. From this experience, I have learned very valuable lessons that I would love to share with you.
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1. Organize your ideas in your head, first.
This might sound obvious but science can be confusing, even for us who work on science every day. The last thing you want when speaking to someone that is trusting you to learn something is to confuse them.
One thing that I have found helpful is to dedicate some time before talking to people to organize my ideas in my head. Sometimes I even scribble them down to keep track of the most important points and to establish limits in between them so that they do not overlap when unnecessary.
2. Be very picky about the words you use!
There are many ways to say a single same thing. I could say “an mRNA molecule is one type of nucleic acid that codifies for a specific protein inside the cell’s cytoplasm”. I could also say “a mRNA is an instruction produced by our cells to build a protein. A protein is like a building brick, they make up our skin, our hair, our entire bodies”. What changes?
Well, the vocabulary, of course. But, most importantly, the audience. Who is going to receive that information? If I use the first example, my aunts would be lost by the third word “molecule”. Why? Because it is not a word they normally use, they don’t need to use it on a daily basis. On the other hand, “instruction” is so common that allows them to build a personal picture in their heads regarding mRNA.
This is hard, it really is. It probably won’t come up on the first try. Most frequently we get stuck when using words that seem too common or obvious for us but our audience says “what do you mean by “molecule”?” That is normal and expected, and we just need to find a way to make that term more accessible. Whenever you feel you got the right vocabulary to use, think again.
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3. Analogies, analogies everywhere.
Isn’t it easier to understand something new if we can associate it with something we know very well? Example: How did I manage to explain what DNA is and how is it different from mRNA in a way that my aunts understood? Well, it turns out that one of my aunts is a baker and, as my husband helped me realize, what happens inside the cell is similar to baking a dessert.
The DNA would be like a recipe book that guards the instructions for so many amazing desserts. In this case, proteins. Since the DNA won’t leave the cell, a transitory step is needed (the mRNA). So, if we are following a recipe from the recipe book, it is as if one needs to write that recipe down in a separate piece of paper that can be lost, torn down, etc… while not bothering the DNA. That piece of paper is the mRNA.
This turned out to be a great point to which people could make personal connections to since it is so common to be in one’s kitchen and prepare some food. If you can find analogies that help people understand and that can help them connect with the message, go for it!
4. Make it an approachable message.
No matter how simple or easy to understand your message is, if people feel repelled by it, or excluded, communicating it won’t work out.
Communicating on controversial topics is a very real and hard challenge. Since the message itself can come across as undesirable depending on people’s preconceptions or the information they have already consumed. One way to make it approachable is its content. As we have been discussing. However, how that content is delivered, is just as important. What will your audience appreciate more? A written text, a video, a voice note, even one of the new methods social media offofferser like picture posting or short/funny videos?
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5. Be a patient and kind messenger.
Communicating science can be exhausting since people can have so many different questions. Sometimes they can come as a gigantic wave and sometimes they could be more sporadic. In any case, it is imperative to remain patient and kind.
When topics are controversial, you might also get some hate generated from people that do not believe in what you are communicating. My personal advice is to remain calm and patient. Don’t take it personal unless it is personally directed at you. In which case, don’t respond. You don’t need that type of negativity in your life and it is also not your job to convince everyone on the face of the earth. The more kind and accessible you seem to your audience, the more willing they will show to engage with you and your message!
6. Research and redirect.
If your family, friends, or whoever is listening to you asks you something that you don’t know about, it is okay to say you don’t know! That does not mean to be hostile or dismissive. You can explain what you don’t know and then either redirect them towards another person or source who can answer the question, or offer that you will try to find a more concrete answer. That depends on you!
I truly hope these lessons I have learned so far can be of use for you when talking about science to a non-sciency audience. Some might be useful even when your audience knows about science but perhaps not precisely about your field. Sometimes we think that the more complex vocabulary we use, the more intelligent we’ll sound. I wonder, if we speak in a way that nobody understands us, would that really be intelligent?