Clinical researchers, medical professionals and other scientific minds often spend their days speaking with and listening to complex, elevated language. However, these professionals frequently need to discuss their work to public officials, patients, and other individuals, and it can be a challenge for life-sciences experts to bring technical talk down closer to a layman’s level—which is necessary to make other understand.
To that end, the American Heart Association (AHA) has joined with the Compassionate Practice team at TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine to offer the Heart of Communicating Science, a series of training modules geared toward helping scientists talk about and explain their work in ways that non-scientists can more readily grasp.
Crafting a message
Mary Ann Bauman, chair of the AHA Research Communications Task Force, spoke with Outsourcing-Pharma about the project, as well as the hard work and collaboration behind it. She said that sometimes physicians, researchers and other professionals can struggle with getting their message across to a non-science-brained audience.
“We often speak in technical terms, and I know how difficult to be to understand—for example, my son in law often talks about electronic things and I have no idea what he’s talking about then,” she said. “The same thing can happen with researchers when they’re trying to explain their work.”
At the outset of the project, the Task Force reached out to Compassionate Practice. Founded in 2017 by Evonne Kaplan-Liss, M.D., MPH, a visiting professor; and Val Lantz-Gefroh, MFA, a visiting Associate Professor at the TCU and UNTHSC School of Medicine, it is an interdisciplinary curriculum aimed to help physicians develop their skills in communication, listening, and awareness, with the goal of forging better connections with their patients, teams and communities.
“This process is intended to help empower scientists and researchers to communicate more clearly, vividly and more effectively,” Lantz-Gefroh said. “Now more than ever, communicating with the public isn’t just a good idea; it’s an imperative.”
The Compassionate Practice harnesses a variety of tools and formats (including journalism, public health, drama, non-verbal communication and narrative medicine techniques) to teach doctors how to form authentic connections, and to clearly, empathetically communicate.
Bauman explained that the team and Task Force (with members Keisa Mathis PhD, FAHA, University of North Texas Health Science Center; and Esa M. Davis MD, MPH, FAAF, University of Pittsburgh offering significant contributions) gathered to craft the program. In September 2020, a group of more than two dozen scientists and researchers were asked to pilot test the series; participants provided feedback on the modules’ structure and content, interactivity, tasks and navigation and design—and in a survey after the pilot, participants agreed they would recommend these modules to a colleague.
“The most useful part was that it made me think about why this research is so important to me,” said pilot participant Mathis. “It made me remember why I care.”
The modules offer guidance for anyone in a highly specialized occupation who is called on to explain their work or research to any less-technical audience. The courses offer speaking and writing advice, with examples, practice drills and processes that can be used in grant writing, presentations, meetings, articles or blogs, and even face-to-face conversations.
The concept behind the training program, Bauman explained, is to help scientific minds spot the jargon in their content and replace it with more common and understandable terms. By simplifying the language, they can better to deliver their important message to less-scientific ears.
“The idea is to try it make it short, to tell a story and paint a picture,” Bauman told OSP.
Often, Bauman pointed out, simplifying the language can be useful in helping researchers continue their work. For example, grants require easy-to-understand explanations of the work involved—and without that, funding might not be awarded. Additionally, explaining work to the citizenry about an important project can help civilians grasp the potential of a project and garner their support, and clearly communicating can make the difference between influential public leaders being supportive of a project, or uninterested.
The Heart of Communicating Science program, Bauman shared, centers around three core skills:
- Speaking plainly about your work: this can help a scientist envision their audience, to better craft and target their message
- Write a lay summary: these can be vital to writing and submitting a successful grant application
- Crafting a well-written news release: a great news release can help capture the attention of a mainstream or technical publication (such as Outsourcing-Pharma) so the announcement gets the news of an interested reporter, who then writes about the work and spreads the word.
“We want to ensure those researchers are equipped to effectively communicate their findings, because bringing science to life is key to translating it into medical advances and treatment guidelines that can help everyone life healthier, longer,” Bauman said.
The Heart of Communicating Science modules are available for purchase through the AHA website.