The Personal is Universal: How To Put Your Science Out for the General Public

A big part of putting out applied science is communicating to the general population in a language they can understand. A post by editor Katie L. Burke at American Scientist on how to do this (and much more) has some helpful tips.

This is one of the most important:

8. If you want people to understand that a problem addressed by your research affects real people, you need to illustrate the problem by telling a story about real people.

Scientists often want to connect with the public by talking about how their research affects issues of widespread concern. But they are used to talking about these effects in abstract ways, such as giving statistics about groups of people. The stats are important, but they’ll hold more weight and be more memorable for the reader if real people are also written as characters in the narrative. When scientists rattle off statistics but do not talk about how they connect to people’s lives, they risk coming off as cold and distant. Anecdotes may not have a place in science writing, but they are absolutely essential to journalistic and literary nonfiction.

Personal stories are stories that connect with people. We care about people. We don’t connect over big social issues we can do nothing about.

David Carr, the late media columnist at The New York Times, spoke about this at an alternative weekly newspaper conference in around 2008, saying (best I can recall), “Don’t talk about poverty; talk about how little Tasha doesn’t get lunch.”

Garry Shandling puts this another way: “The more personal it is, the more universal it is.”



About Amy Alkon

Amy Alkon is the irreverent purveyor of “science news you can use.” Her most recent book is the science-based and bitingly funny "Good Manners for Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014). Her award-winning, science-based syndicated column runs in about 100 newspapers. She is the 2015 president of the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society and hosts her own weekly radio show, “ Nerd Your Way to a Better Life,” featuring the luminaries of behavioral science.

2 thoughts on “The Personal is Universal: How To Put Your Science Out for the General Public

  1. Well that makes sense. On the other hand, if ppl are unable to make the connections, what does that tell us? Then again, maybe ppl need to learn to make the connections and it’s the Teacher’s duty to facilitate this-without interdiction of one’s own agenda? I wonder if other industries, like those of us in Nursing, do this with more frequency? Would patient satisfaction and compliance go up? I’ll employ this.

    1. Cool, Adam, that you got something out of the post.

      I think it’s important to always consider the audience when communicating. Since you’re a nurse, there’s a good chance that, at least some of the time, you’ll be talking to people who are afraid, which means it’s possible their cognitive processes have been shut down by messages from their amygdala, so you may need to talk to them more simply or even to come back and tell them again what you told them.

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