Mar 10

Simplify, Don’t Dumb It Down: the art of getting to the point while respecting your audience

By Jonas Calsbeek, WSU Vancouver Neuroscience student

“An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.”

-Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner (1908)

This statement describes the difficulty that scientists face when attempting to explain their research to the general public. Not only is it important to understand complex chemical and physical processes for research, but it is equally as valuable to effectively communicate these concepts to a lay audience. There are two fundamental goals that everyone should strive for when they interact with the media or general public:

  1. Simplify the topic as much as possible (without losing meaning)
  1. Speak in sound bites (to avoid misinterpretation)


Simplification can be accomplished by explaining a complex topic to a child. The phrase “Explain it to me like I’m a 5-year-old” refers to this concept because it illustrates the benefit of removing unnecessary jargon when talking to a child. While this strategy can be beneficial, the scientist should also be very careful to avoid using condescending language and/or phrasing that results from “dumbing down” the important information. The removal of complicated scientific jargon can be extremely difficult when describing research, but it is imperative when educating others outside of the field or when attempting to gain the financial support of federal funding agencies.


Figure 2 http://informationillustration.com/portfolio/sound-bite/

Figure 2 http://informationillustration.com/portfolio/sound-bite/

Sound “bites” are effective ways to communicate ideas or topics, and they are usually so “tasty” that they provoke further conversation or inquiry. These rich and tiny tidbits of information are usually distilled from years of research and pages of literature to convince a new reader or listener to seek more information. Journalists have a tendency to reduce large amounts of information down to only a few sound bites, so it can be very important to have some of these ready to go at a moment’s notice. If all you provide is a sound bite, reporters have a much harder time misrepresenting what you wanted to say. Neil Degrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, has perfected this strategy and he describes the anatomy of a sound bite.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>