How to Eliminate Jargon From Science Communication

Oct. 13, 2021

Imagine having to make an immediate, high-impact decision after receiving a large amount of new information. Policymakers are faced with a constant influx of information, often truncated and stripped of detail, and sometimes conflicting with other resources or previous data.

Now imagine the same scenario but with the information presented in a foreign language. Science advocates must keep in mind that for most policymakers, scientific terminology, or jargon, is a new language, one that makes the connection between research and policy harder to understand. Likewise, there are a number of process-related legislative terms used among Congressional staffers that have little use outside policy-making (i.e. continuing resolution, budget justification, filibuster). This is not an insult to either group’s intelligence but a fact that each profession has its own jargon, and like 2 people speaking different languages, the 2 sets of jargon invite miscommunication.

Jargon refers to technical vocabulary that is specific to a particular profession or field. Many times, the technical term might be completely unfamiliar to a non-practitioner outside of the field (e.g. Gram-negative versus Gram-positive). Conversely, the same term might have more than one meaning depending on its context. Microbiologists understand each other when they discuss “growing culture,” as the familiar lab activity of cultivating a bacterial colony in a petri dish. Yet others may associate the word “culture” with heritage or traditions, sparking confusion about what exactly the microbiologist is studying.

It is crucial that communication with non-scientists be clear, concise and understandable. When speaking with policymakers, who are often on a tight schedule, the ability to explain a complex scientific topic is even more valuable. An advocate might not even have the chance to speak with a representative themselves, but rather, have the message passed along in a long game of telephone among a hierarchy of Congressional staffers, being subject to accidental misinterpretation along the way. Remember, most lawmakers and their staff do not specialize in science, though they have varying degrees of background knowledge and interests. A message that can't be understood by a staffer is a missed opportunity to connect with a Congressional office. An effective advocate must be able to explain the science not only in a way the audience can understand, but in a way that audience can explain back to their own audiences. An individual policymaker may be a science whiz, but struggle to convey the concepts to their colleagues or constituents. In these cases, a single word can make a world of difference.

Tips for Effective Messaging:

  • Use simple explanations. The policymaker, who has likely been approached by others in the field or opposing viewpoints, may have encountered, or will encounter, conflicting information. An advocate will achieve much more if by explaining the subject in simple, relatable terms that boost understanding rather than in technical, intangible jargon.
  • Pay attention to the audience. Most people do not like to admit they don’t understand something, perhaps out of embarrassment, fear of being impolite or on the assumption they know enough to “get the gist.” Be aware of the audience’s response during a conversation. Pay attention to social and physical signals that may indicate a need to modify the message. Does the audience’s responses seem appropriate to the complexity of the situation?
  • Do some background research. Start with the most basic information to ensure a strong base understanding and delve into more detail as appropriate. Science advocates can also start the conversation with some preliminary questions to gauge the audience’s background knowledge.

How can scientists limit jargon? The first step is to learn which terms fall outside of a lay audience’s vocabulary, and to identify synonyms or explanations that are more accessible. As part of their training, the ASM Hill Day 2021 cohort participated in the Up-Goer Five Challenge, using a translator tool that only allows the most common 1,000 (or ten hundred) words in the English language to describe their scientific research.

Ahead of the workshop, participants prepared a roughly 150-word explanation of their work in the way they might describe it to a colleague. They entered their explanations into the translator which highlighted words that were not considered among the 1,000 most “common.” Participants were then asked to replace their jargon words with simpler terms until only the most common terms were used.

ASM President Steven Finkel joined in on the exercise. Finkel describes his work on the University of Southern California website as studying “the long-term survival and evolution of bacteria, including understanding natural systems and applications to electricity production.” He cites among his topics of interest population structure at the genetic and genomic level, the roles of error-prone DNA polymerases in generating diversity, the role of DNA-protein interactions during the stationary phase of the bacterial lifecycle, and the bioelectrochemical systems and mechanisms of survival in severely nutrient- and energy-limited deep subseafloor environments.

Eliminating the jargon, his new summary read:

“Studies in my area focus on the long-term living and changing of tiny cells found in many different types of places in our world, from bottles in our workplace to under the ground, under the water and in the human stomach. We work with many different things to understand how the tiny cells work and live, what they eat, how they use food, and how they make babies and change over time and how they live better.”

While this example might be a bit extreme, and more humorous than prescriptive, it illustrates the potential scientists have to communicate with audiences on a non-technical level. ASM has many resources to help improve your science communication, including ASM’s Helpful Jargon Guide.

Author: ASM Advocacy

ASM Advocacy
ASM Advocacy is making it easy and providing opportunities for members to advocate for evidence-based scientific policy.