Communicate science

Expressing complex ideas

Clearly it is not easy to explain what researchers do (even to people inside science, but outside the same discipline.)

The first step in expressing complex ideas effectively is prioritize and choose:

  • Think in advance what you want to say
  • Think hard about what interests you personally about the issue
  • What interests you will interest your audience

Consider things that may not even be the most “important” aspect of your research. If it interests you, the audience’s attention will be drawn to that.

When explaining your research, an “approximate answer” is often enough for most audiences. For example:

  • Not: “My work involves training a deep learning algorithm using neural networks to recognize the difference between a positive and a negative tissue sample.”
  • Better: “I use algorithms to help doctors identify cancer.”

Can you express your research in an approximate answer?

Analogies, metaphors and comparisons are especially useful.

A comparison can be defined as comparing something that is very known with something that is completely unknown.

For example, “…the computing power of 200 petaflops is equal to a stack of iPad Pros 200 times as high as the world’s tallest building.”

Expressing ideas in a “sound bite” is a good discipline for expressing complex ideas clearly. To explain: a “sound bite” is the 0:20 bit journalists take from a longer interview, to put in a story. Effective sound bites have two components:


  • The “essence” of what you want to say
  • Interesting to you as a professional and as a person
  • Includes humanity/human emotion
  • New/unusual/unique/breaks stereotypes


  • Not more than 20 seconds
  • A complete thought
  • Specific, not abstract or general
  • Jargon Free: “conversational”

To formulate a brief description of your research in a “sound bite”, include:

  • Specifics, not generalities or abstractions
  • Compassion/concern
  • Emphasize results over process (also “…what could be”)
  • Humanity/human emotion/passion/enthusiasm

Tip: your passion + technical expertise will always trump technical expertise alone.