Wanted: Ecologists Up for the Ultimate (Plain Language) SciComm Challenge


Can you interpret this graphic? What would make it more accessible? More interesting to look at? More reader-friendly? The same questions are key for how you plan communication efforts for audiences you want to engage with your science.

*Spoiler alert: we want you to sign up to do this at ESA 2016! Scroll to the bottom for details.

**NEW SPOILER ALERT: You all are awesome and we had an overwhelming response of volunteers (more than we have slots!)! Thanks for your continued support and interesting in sci comm!

Post by Holly Menninger

My family sat in the front row of the auditorium for my dissertation seminar. While I can barely recall the organization or content of the presentation, one memory that does stick with me is my dad furiously typing on his Blackberry. No, he wasn’t distracted by calls from work or being rude; he was googling my words, trying to grasp meaning in the jargon I used, words like ‘allochthonous’ and ‘autochthonous.’

Jargon – technical language – certainly has its place in the discourse of science.

In our research papers. In our presentations at scientific meetings. Dare I say, our dissertation seminars. Jargon is the specialized language that we use to communicate scientific ideas and concepts with our peers in the field.

However, jargon used outside of these contexts – at a science café, in a media interview, in a K-12 classroom – is less desirable.


Graphic by Giulia Forsythe; used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license


When you are no longer talking about your work with fellow research specialists, but communicating ideas to a wider and often non-scientific audience, overly specialized language can be distracting, confusing, and off-putting.

If your goal is to make your science accessible and engaging to a wider audience, your language needs to match that goal.

Hence, any workshop or book about science communication to public audiences will always cover jargon – urging you strongly not to use it and giving you strategies for identifying and overcoming it. You want your audience to hear what you have to say, not spend your whole talk googling your words.

Learning to plain-speak your science takes practice and determination. You get better at it the more you do it.

And so at ESA 2016, the Science Communication Section wants to give you an opportunity to practice sharing your science in a supportive space with a friendly audience.

But with one (well, really two) caveats:

  1. You can only use the 1,000 most common words in the English language (Yes, this is extreme and a bit artificial, BUT constraints make you think creatively and deliberately about your word choices).
  2. It’s an Ignite session so you only get 5 minutes and 20 seconds per slide before it automatically advances. (Why the added challenge? The ESA Meeting Committee thought this session would best fit this high-energy format).

Our inspiration for this quite-possibly-masochistic exercise in science communication came from the Sharing Science Program of the American Geophysical Union.

At AGU’s Fall 2015 meeting, Sharing Science hosted a session called the Up-Goer 5 Giving-It-a-Try (aka Challenge). The session was itself inspired by Randall Munroe’s famous xkcd comic in which he explains the Saturn V rocket using only the 1000 most common words in the English language.  (Munroe’s since gone on to do a whole book in the style of Up Goer Five called Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words.)

The results – as evident by this Storify of the session – were nothing short of spectacular.

And so, we’re seeking 10 brave ecologists to give it a try at our #ESA2016 Ignite session. Good news is that another fellow, Theo Sanderson, created an Up-Goer Five text editor where you can copy and paste your words into a box and see if they meet the 1000-word criteria.

What say you? Are you willing to try?

Please sign up via our Google form. We need to line up speakers & abstracts by Feb. 12!

WOW! Thanks to your enthusiastic response, we easily recruited 10 intrepid volunteers. Thank you!

**Please note that Ignite sessions are exempt from the one presentation rule at ESA meetings. Anyone who is the presenter in the session may also present in another scientific session (symposium, organized oral, organized poster, contributed talk, contributed poster). However, each speaker may not give more than one Ignite presentation.**

Post in Upgoer 5 text editor

This is how the first few lines of this post stack up against the Up-Goer Five text editor’s algorithms – if we counted correctly, there are 159 distinct (and in some cases multiple instances of these) words that need to be replaced. For example, communicate and science.