How to translate technical and scientific topics for lay readers


Posted Jan. 22, 2018

Given that Americans are typically low in scientific literacy, scientists, engineers, and technologists struggle more than ever to translate their areas of expertise into terms a broad audience can understand.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, describes the scientifically illiterate as “people who do not know what science is nor how and why it works.” That lack of fluency makes it challenging to produce anything from manuals to presentations to research reports that can speak to people without scientific or technical knowledge. Here are five tips for good technical writing that can help.

1: Give the reader reasons to care

Connect the dots between the material being discussed and the audience’s interests or needs. In other words, preemptively answer the question “So what?” by clarifying what’s in it for them. To that end, you might try to put the focus on people, like end-users or beneficiaries. Instead of describing the system, process, or technology, describe what the user sees – especially the results or outcomes.

2: Leave out unnecessary details

Put yourself in your reader’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Try to discern which details are highly relevant from those that may just obfuscate the subject matter. "You need to give them only what they need to know and point them to what they need to focus on," says science journalist Quentin Cooper, who presents BBC Radio 4's Material World. "If you are explaining some aspect of quantum physics, you can't start with what an atom is, it would take far too long.”

3: Ground the writing in details they already know

Author and award-winning teacher Phil Beadle tells the BBC, "Good teaching is about contextualizing learning, connecting it to experience, finding an appropriate analogy." Additionally, researchers from the University of Kansas recommend that technical people “use common words: If you say, for example, that a symbiodinium is a unicellular dinoflagellate one time and a single-celled algae another, people will get confused. Just call it single-celled algae every damn time.”

4: Don’t talk down to your audience.

It can be tempting for scientifically literate authors to look down on the great unwashed (and uneducated) masses, but patronizing readers will turn them off to the subject matter and make them less likely to absorb whatever you’re trying to communicate. Further, always remember, as the University of Kansas researchers add, “Public audiences aren’t dumb, they just don’t know the same things that you do.”

5: Get some training

Speaking of not knowing the same things, breaking down highly technical topics into material that laypeople can absorb and understand is a science all its own, grounded in a series of specific communication skills. Even experts in their respective fields may falter in this area. Find a good class, or failing that, a book that provides effective scientific writing strategies and opportunities to strengthen communication skills on how to translate scientific and technical topics.

About Hurley Write, Inc.
Hurley Write, Inc., a certified women-owned small business (WBENC and WOSB), Historically Underutilized (HUB), and Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE), has been designing and teaching customized onsite and online technical, business, and scientific writing courses for over 25 years. We also develop and teach specialty courses, such as how to write proposals and standard operating procedures (SOPs) and deviation and investigation reports, and how to prepare and give great presentations.