By Richard Berks, freelance science writer for charities

Published: 20 August 2020

Writing about research for a lay audience is not just about replacing long words with short ones. It’s as much about what you decide to tell them, and how your explanation flows. For a medical research charity, this is absolutely critical. Many of your supporters will not be experts in research, but they do want to know how their donations are used.

In the previous blog, I spoke about how charities make their lay summary pages clear and visually engaging. In this blog, I’ll be focusing on the text on these pages.

I will show you the method I use to best explain research to make it easier for your audience to understand.  There is also a step-by-step guide to how you can apply this method.

The journey and the nuggets

Think about explaining science to someone as a journey.  Your audience’s journey starts at Point A – the knowledge that they already have about the topic. It ends at Point B – a new place, where they now know something they didn’t know before.

As you explain a new research project, your audience will have learn new things that they didn’t know before. I call these new pieces of information “science nuggets”.

Science nuggets are useful and needed. But they are not benign – they are a burden for your audience in two ways:

  1. They are brand new information that they must learn and understand. Learning new things is difficult.
  2. They must be ‘deployed’ at the right time.

Back to our journey from A to B. Some destinations (and some journeys) are going to require your audience to learn more new concepts than others – more nuggets to pick up.

Your task as an explainer is not to make the journey from A to B as short as possible for your audience. It’s to make it as easy as possible by reducing the number of nuggets they must collect on the way.

8 steps to make research understandable

I’m using the example of writing a lay summary of a research project. But this could be as easily applied to a news story about a research paper, or an update from a researcher which you’re feeding back to a donor.

  1. Decide on point B first

Your journey goes from A to B – work out where point B is first. Think about all the things that your audience could get from this particular research project, and pick the one which resonates most with your audience.

  1. Think about point A

You’ve got an idea of where your audience is heading – where are they now? What do they know about this topic right now? What don’t they know?

This is always difficult. There’s a fine balance to make between assuming too much knowledge (and so not explaining enough) or assuming too little knowledge, and therefore ‘speaking down’ to your audience, which can feel patronising.

  1. What are the routes between A and B?

Now’s the time to think about the journey to your chosen point B from point A. What are the options? It might seem like there’s only one route, but try and think of at least one more.

For now, pick one of these routes. You can always consider the other options later.

  1. What are the nuggets they'll need to pick up on the way?

Thinking about the route you’ve chosen, what are the “science nuggets” they’ll need to pick up on their journey? What are the new pieces of information they need to learn, understand, and deploy at the right time? Are there gene/molecule names they need? Or a brand-new biological concept? Or new information appended to an old idea?

  1. Reduce the nuggets

Remember that the fewer the nuggets, the easier the journey will be from A to B for your audience. So think about how you might reduce the number of nuggets they’ll need to pick up to understand the project. Cut it back to what they need to know, not what ‘it might be nice’ for them to know.

One tip for doing this is just give it a go: try explaining the project without mentioning one of those nuggets. If it still makes sense and gets your audience from A to B, then that’s a sign that nugget isn’t essential. Get rid.

  1. Re-evaluate and adjust

You’ll be getting a good sense now whether the route you chose is easy or not.

How does the route between A and B seem now? Are there any gaps, or big leaps they need to make? Would a different route be better?

You could also think about your start and endpoints.

  • Is your Point B right? Would it be easier to head towards a different (but equally valid and rewarding) destination?
  • Is your Point A right? Have you assumed too little or too much knowledge? If you attacked this trek from a different starting point, would it make it easier?
  1. Repeat as necessary

Repeat the steps above as often as you like until you have something you’re happy with. Congratulations!

  1. Review at a later date

You might find that over time, it becomes obvious that your explanation isn’t good enough. That’s ok. Review and adjust as necessary, and go through the steps above if needed.

This method might seem complicated at first, but it becomes second nature once you practise it over and over again. Remember that your goal is not to make the journey short at all costs – it’s to make it easy. The distinction could be the difference between leaving your charity’s supporters confused, and leaving them wanting to learn more about the work they’ve made possible.