In issues ranging from climate change to public health, scientists have fallen under attack. Science communicators today face a challenge: How do we tell our stories when readers can’t agree on the facts?
Some of the answers may lie in the tools of good communication. Recent research shows us where we may be making missteps in science writing, and lays out some strategies to help us improve.
The jargon trap
Experts in all fields love their jargon. But jargon and unfamiliar words make readers stop reading, even when the word is defined in the text, according to a study at The Ohio State University. What’s more, researchers found that jargon led people to disbelieve in science.
“When you have a difficult time processing the jargon, you start to counter-argue,” says lead author Hillary Schulman. “You don’t like what you’re reading. But when it is easier to read, you are more persuaded and you’re more likely to support these technologies.”
Jargon may be useful in specific circumstances, however, when you are writing for an audience whose members share a common vocabulary. Use caution: If any section of your audience is unfamiliar with your terminology — such as those who are new to the field — you risk alienating them. For more information on science writing for experts, see this short video from user experience firm the Nielsen Norman Group.
More than just the facts
Many times, we’re trying to reach people who may not have much trust in science. That means we have to work hard to engage people with an open communication style, according to a new report in the Journal of Extension. This could include working to make the message relevant and relatable, and including photos and stories of real people.
“Effective science communication involves many more stylistic elements than just using simpler terminology,” the researchers write. “When communicating with the public, it is critical to also consider appropriate framing to bring familiarity to a subject that may seem foreign and intimidating to a general audience.”
For example, you could choose to frame an article in terms of the risks an issue may pose to a community, researchers suggest. Spell out what could happen if people don’t test their soil for nutrient deficiencies, for example. Conversational language is also key.
Use plain language
People are more likely to trust information they can understand. We talked about the importance of plain language in a blog post earlier this year. Here are a few of the main points:
- Lead with a brief summary.
- Break up long passages into understandable “chunks” with subheads, bullet points and pull quotes.
- Avoid passive voice.
- Check the reading level of your article. If your text falls above the 12th grade reading level, even experts will find it hard to read. Run your text through a readability app like the Hemingway Editor to help you find areas to improve.
We can’t solve all these issues with our keyboards. But avoiding jargon and following the principles of plain language can bridge the gap between writers and readers, and bring us that much closer to understanding.