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How to Talk About Your Research to Outsiders

It’s the bane of every PhD candidate’s existence: explaining your research to outsiders. Looking for ways to engage others in your research and still manage to make friends? Let’s take a closer look at six strategies to help you.

Nov 27, 2017
  • Student Tips
How to Talk About Your Research to Outsiders

Your PhD is going great! You love your work and want to talk about it all the time to anyone who will listen.

Sometimes, it’s hard to get people to listen.

When you’re a doctoral student, it’s easy to get tunnel vision. Microscopic vision. It’s sometimes hard to see outside of yourself and what you’re doing.

Want to talk to people outside your field? Want to learn how to talk to potential funders? You might need some help.

Let’s take a look at six strategies you can use to let other people into your world.

1. Have a small speech prepared for the question, “So, what do you do?”

When you talk to a non-expert audience that is interested in your work, introduce it in a way that will engage people and make them want to ask questions. Think of it as a speaker-friendly first paragraph introduction to that thesis you’re working on.

Step 1: Develop a hook. Prepare one or two sentences about your research that addresses a broad issue.

Step 2: Offer your audience three to five concise sentences about your research, without jargon (see #3). This part generally focuses on the “why” of your research (see #2). Make three key points. Keep them brief and easy to understand.

Step 3: Develop one or two sentences that connect your research back to Step 1. Note: don’t do this at dinner parties. Have a mellower version available for social situations.

2. Explain “why,” not “what”

Think of yourself as the star character in your own movie. The plot is less interesting than what motivates you.

Tell people what motivates you and why you’re doing your work. Maybe your “why” is to ease human suffering, or to solve a previously unsolved problem, or to bring some new perspective to a famous historical figure.

Whatever it is, your “why” needs to capture the imagination of those with whom you’re talking.

3. Get rid of jargon

It doesn’t make you sound smarter. It makes you sound obnoxious. Get rid of it. No one wants to hear it

Did you know that a “pdf” is not a document but a “probability density function”? Or did you think it was a document?

Scientists, doctors, lawyers, educators, social scientists, and other specialists all use that specialized language endemic to their fields. Make your language plain (see #5) and engage your listeners.

4. Use metaphors

When you talk to other people who aren’t in your field—or maybe even not in academia—real life analogies and metaphors work well. Why? They resonate with people. You can easily illustrate your point without having to drill into detail that won’t be meaningful to your listeners.

Here’s an example from an article in Forbes on a metaphor that translates well to research work on climate science:

“Weather is your mood, climate is your personality,” and “if you don’t like the weather wait a few hours, if you don’t like the climate, move.”

Why are these effective? They show listeners the differences between climate and weather—and get your audience motivated to hear more.

5. Use plain language

We know that jargon doesn’t work (see #3), and that plain language does. What’s plain language? A term for communication that your audience easily understands the first time they hear it.

Many researchers struggle to find and use simple words—here are some tips to use them:

a. Focus on what’s important without getting weighed down in too much information.

b. Be accurate.

c. Avoid passive verbs and stick with active voice.

d. Keep sentences short and sweet.

6. Follow the hourglass model of storytelling

What’s that you wonder? Follow the shape of an hourglass: start broad, narrow down, and end broadly.

Tell the why of your research, make your audience care, give some interesting details about it, and end by offering what you hope you find as a conclusion.

Your takeaway for talking about research to friends and colleagues? Tell a great story. Keep it short, sweet, and honest.

You’ll get lots of great questions—and then, when the timing’s right and folks are ready to hear more? You can go into as much detail as you’d like.

Learn more about earning your PhD.

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