Communicating Geoscience to Non-Scientists

As a professional Applied Geoscientist, there may be times when you need to convey the results of your research or share your expertise with a non-technical audience. As someone working in a science profession, it’s easy to forget that much of the scientific understanding you take for granted as common knowledge, is actually not shared by large portions of the American population.

Whether speaking in person or in the form of a written article or report, there are some recommended guidelines for communicating with those outside your own industry.

Tips for Communicating Geologic Concepts to Non-Geologists

Know your audience.

Explaining the intricacies of a public works project to a city council meeting may need to be more technical than a talk you give at an open public forum. And both are certainly different than the kind of presentation you might give to a group of students. Try to gauge the level of education and understanding of your audience ahead of time and think carefully about which concepts they will and won’t understand. When in doubt, assume that your audience has very little understanding of all but the most basic science concepts.

Avoid technical terminology and industry jargon.

When you spend your days working and speaking with other geoscientists, you may throw around phrases like, “We determined hydrothermal alteration intensity by comparing the number of secondary minerals to the primary minerals observed in the petrographic analyses.” But your average non-geologist is not going to understand this. Be prepared to explain any and all technical terminology. Or better yet, replace those terms with something readily understandable to a layperson. For instance, “incompetent ground” might be explained as “overweighted/overstressed ground.” “In situ” could become “found in place.” “Hygroscopic” could be simplified to “water absorbent.” And so on.

Focus on the end goal.

What is the purpose of your speech, report or paper? If you are trying to convince a shareholders meeting on the inadvisability of the scope of a proposed project, don’t get bogged down in over-explaining all the scientific concepts involved. Focus on statistics, evidence, charts and graphs that will make your case as simply and convincingly as possible. If you are educating students, then you may want to focus more on concepts and helping them to understanding geologic processes. Determine your desired outcome and work backward to decide how technical you want to get and how much science you need to impart.

Be succinct.

If you are speaking or writing to a group of your peers, you have much more leeway to wax philosophical about your research, the history of a given topic, your methodology, etc. A non-scientific audience will be much less forgiving or interested. Don’t lose their attention by rambling or going down rabbit holes of information they don’t really need. Know what you are trying to communicate and get to the point. If you are giving a speech, better to explain your main points (keep it to only a few) and then leave time for questions.

Use examples and metaphors.

Help your listeners or readers relate to what you are trying to explain by using everyday examples or analogies that can put scientific concepts into an easily understandable context. For instance, if you are discussing the risk posed by landslides around a proposed highway project, you can show photos and explain an incident of a landslide occurring near a project with similar characteristics. If you are trying to explain cross-cutting relationships of intrusive rock bodies, you could compare it to a piece of cracked pottery that now has a vein of gold or glue.

Overall, when explaining scientific topics to a non-science audience, just keep in mind that your listeners or readers will likely need scientific concepts explained to them in non-technical terms and in more detail. Edit out extraneous information that they don’t need, stick to a few main points and when in doubt, remember that simpler is usually better.

Interested in having a professional Applied Geoscientist visit your school or organization? Interested in offering your services as a Liaison to spread the word about AEG and promote the benefits of an exciting career in the geosciences? Learn more about our Visiting Professional Program!

Share this post:

Comments on "Communicating Geoscience to Non-Scientists"

Comments 0-5 of 1

Nazrul Khandaker - Thursday, January 07, 2021

I enjoyed reading about the core theme pertaining to Communicating Geoscience to Non-Scientists." It is very timely and we should plan and execute tasks regularly on this crucial topic to ensure the voices of geologists are heard and respected in legislative, administrative and citizen science sectors before deciding on large-scale capital construction, infrastructure-related new projects or upgrading existing projects. We often are bogged down in nutty gritty details and use technical terminology to convey or express our understanding of natural hazards to the public or news media. Avoidance of technical vocabulary, as much as possible, one can reach numerous non-geology people and enable them to appreciate the role of geoscience knowledge as a primary controlling factor in hazard mitigation. Once I heard from Ian Stewart (a Scottish geologist, UNESCO Chair in Geoscience and Society, and Professor of Geoscience Communication at the University of Plymouth, I call him a true Citizen Geoscientist), who eloquently emphasized on the art of simple communication and how we lack the much-needed skill to educate or motivate non-geology persons. “In an area with subduction-related risks, people should be more interested to know about the seismic risks and how it can negatively affect their day-to-day activities, on existing infrastructures, dwellings, water supply, roads and highways, etc.” People will be more interested to know about hazard-related destruction rather than tectonic interpretation of the vulnerable area. It is true that often we do not want to compromise and eventually adhere to commonly used technical vocabulary and as a result, miss out the opportunity to inform greater majority of the population. Well-informed citizen group can exert pressure on local legislative or elected representative to push the issue on an upwardly spiral chain and seek viable solution as well. AEG-supported initiative is truly appreciative and should address the issue very constructively by allowing geologists to reach many non-geology individuals. It is a win win situation. Thanks.

Please login to comment