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Jackson McGehee
May 8, 2017 · 72 Reads

Scientific research written for a main-stream audience: the un-guideline

Let me begin by saying I am not very good at writing guidelines. I am good at writing because I feel it. What I mean is that I can intuitively feel what will resonate well with an audience, but I don’t always have some sort of rule or structure to back it up. A simple example: I can correct grammar from “feel” but I often look up the actual rules after the fact as a means of explanation and justification.



So far, this is useless in guiding anything. I contacted “The Surg” about contributing to this project because I believe in its purpose. The intersections of disciplines are murky and confusing places. People of different backgrounds speak past one another using their often-incompatible vernaculars. People arrive at intersections from vastly different origins and with equally different destinations. It is my opinion that many of the challenges modern society faces is because of the difficulties of these metaphorical intersections.

Policy creation in government is just a series of these intersections.

Steve Jobs imagined himself as the epitome of the intersection of the humanities and technology. He believed technology could improve people’s lives, but it had to be beautifully designed so it integrated with people and life rather than forcing people to integrate with technology.

The divisive nature of Steve Jobs and Apple products is a great example of the challenges of the intersection. If you are an Apple person, you get exactly what Jobs was saying. If you are not an Apple person, you think he is full of poop.

The goals of The Surg are no less challenging. We have been inspired to design a platform to share the wonderful achievements in the scientific community with the general population. If this could be achieved by writing a guideline, the gap wouldn’t exist.

But I do believe many of the articles and videos we have already created are effective. I believe we can overcome the challenges of this particular intersection. It will take replicating, again and again, the passion and intuition contributors have already displayed.

First, we must understand our audience, which is a complex undertaking. The audience has two main parts: the general public and scientists. However, the general public is a little broad. In communications, we use personas to facilitate the understanding of an audience. A persona is a fictional person that has characteristics that can be assumed to be true for the majority of the audience that has similar demographic traits. Basically, if you craft every message with this person in mind, you will reach everyone like that person.

So, let me introduce Charles. Charles is a college educated man in his early thirties. He took science classes, but much of the content is in a dusty trunk in the corner of his brain attic. He will remember when nudged the right way. He has a family and a job and some hobbies, but none of that is important to us. The important thing to us about Charles is that he likes things that are cool. To him, science is much closer to magic than he will admit. His curiosity about the stories in The Surg comes from the same place as his interest in Harry Potter and Guardians of the Galaxy. He loves the excitement and optimism that is naturally associated with scientific discovery.

However, Charles does not view himself as stupid. He knows that he has intellectual limits, but he does not want them thrown in his face. He walks a delicate line, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, seeking the things that challenge him intellectually. He doesn’t want to be spoken to like he is an uneducated rube, but he also doesn’t like the feeling of being lost in jargon that goes over his head.

So how do we speak to Charles? The most important aspect is that we convey the excitement and the optimism of scientific discovery. Without this aspect, he won’t be interested. Keep in mind the “so what” of the scientific achievement. Why should Charles care? The specifics about word choice and other technical aspects of articles is much more ambiguous. Just take a moment and think about Charles: Are his eyes glazing over or does he look like he is on the edge of his seat? Collaboration is key. Writers often miss the communication gaps because they know exactly what they were thinking when they wrote it.



The second part of our audience is scientists. I view scientists as artists. They take imagination and creativity and manifest it in our physical world. They are passionate about what they do, and they want to share it. However, condensing their years of toil into a short blog post can feel cheap and threatening. We just have to make them understand we are not replacing their work, we are trying to draw people to it. We are trying to pique curiosity. We are making the movie trailer to their feature length film.

I hope this helps to some degree, however I acknowledge the possibility that it is completely useless. It is difficult to create something without jargon that is exciting to Charles while maintaining the essence of the science. Imagine being on a boat in gently rolling seas. You have a bow and a quiver of arrows. However, your target is on the deck of an adjacent, independently moving boat. That is what we are trying to do: hit a moving target from a moving platform. We can discuss the fundamentals of archery: focus, sight picture, breathing, proper release, etc, but hitting the target, in this case, largely comes down to timing, intuitive feel and some luck.

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