“Mandy, I still remember the first time we got to know each other,” my friend said during a four-hour road trip a couple of weeks ago. “We were riding a bus to New York City, and I really wanted to get to know you and to understand what you work on, but all I could figure out was that there are plant hormones and that you studied them,” she continued. I turned around from my front seat and said, “you’re telling me that the first time we got to know each other, almost four years ago, I spent an entire bus ride talking about plant hormones and you are still my friend?” I had to smile in amazement. She has since become one of my very close friends even after that trip!
Thankfully, since that time in grad school when I worked on plant hormones, I have taken advantage of multiple opportunities to learn how to more effectively communicate science. Now, as a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) employee, I am highly encouraged to participate in outreach activities that help engage the general public on the science I do, which is funded by tax dollars. I am thankful for my job and try to do my best with these opportunities. One communication tip that has helped me in framing my presentations to non-molecular biologists is “the elevator conversation.” It’s a tidbit that I picked up at a “Communicating Science” workshop co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).
Essentially, if you were in an elevator with a person who politely asked “what do you do for a living?” How would you respond in the short amount of time that you have? It’s been said that people usually retain sets of 3’s, so what 3 things would you point out about your work?
Along with roughly 40 other scientists, I sat in that AAAS/NSF workshop and practiced and rehearsed my elevator conversation to physicists, neurologists, and archeologists, etc. in the room. The one stumbling block that most scientists had when framing the elevator conversation was the tendency to give three facets that he/she really loved about his/her research rather than relaying three points the inquirer might understand and possibly find interesting. (If the inquirer cannot understand the work, then he/she will most likely not find the work exciting.)
So what is your elevator conversation? Let me introduce my work:
1.) I am a biologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
2.)I study a disease that threatens the world’s soybean crop.
3.)I focus on soybean plants that are resistant to the disease and try to identify the regions of their DNA that make these plants resistant.
If I am casually engaged in a conversation, these three points give the inquirer the opportunity to run away if bored with my response OR, hopefully, if I have broken down my work well enough, he/she can ask a question that allows the conversation to grow. Through my outreach presentation opportunities and those casual conversations, I have learned that non-scientists and scientists from other fields like to hear about the research going on in labs. They just need those first points to be easily digestible and lacking in technical jargon in order to carry on the conversation.