Lunch and Learn: Describing Your Research to a General Audience

Topic: Describing your research to a general audience

Date: February 21, 2017

Invited Speaker:

Danny Nelson, Graduate School, University of Utah


Throughout your life, you will find yourself in many situations where you must communicate your top-level research to people who aren’t experts in your field. It could be in a job interview for industry, presenting your research plan to someone not in your field or just talking with family.

In this month L&L, Dr. Nelson provided a comprehensive overview of the general rules that you should follow to make your research accessible to a general audience. He also pointed out common pitfalls to avoid.

When you are giving a presentation there are four rules of engagement:

1) Assess your audience: Different audiences have different interests. The way of presenting your research should be tailored to the audience. Determining the audience’s level of expertise will not only change the way you present concepts but what language you use. It is useful to keep in mind who your audience is. You can get this information, for example, from the event organizers. You should also keep in mind what you are trying to accomplish with this presentation (get a job, be a role model, etc.).

2) Keep it simple: choose your language carefully, avoiding jargon (special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understand), acronyms (abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word) and words that have a specific meaning in your field that differ from the everyday use. Use everyday, common language.

3) Use limited metaphors: as a reminder, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable. They are powerful images if used right, making difficult concepts easier to understand. You may need to use more than one metaphor during your presentation, but only if there are different concepts. Do not overdo it and avoid using mixed metaphors (these are combinations of two incompatible metaphors, which produces a ridiculous effect).

4) Show the impact: what is your research bringing to society? Be careful to control unrealistic expectations but answer the audience’s question “Why should I care?”.

In the accompanying powerpoint presentation you will find do’s and don’ts for each of these rules, as well as examples.

Keep in mind that:

o   It takes time to learn how to effectively communicate your research to a lay audience, so take every opportunity to practice.

o   Most of the learning process is to break bad habits (the don’ts).

2017_02_L&L_The Common Touch in Research