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Three Questions Scientific Communication Must Answer  
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    What? How? Why?    
Here are the three questions that must be addressed when describing any technological advance.
  • What do we believe?
  • How did we learn it?
  • Why do we believe it?
There's nothing magic about these questions, but sometimes failing to explicitly consider them leads to flawed communication. The recent communication disasters surrounding the SARS-Cov2 pandemic provide an extreme example of what happens when those questions are not adequately addressed, showing that even experts can get it wrong. But it's not that complicated, if you keep these questions in mind.

If you examine the common structure of peer-reviewed papers, those are exactly the questions they're designed to answer. The key elements are the specific advance described in the paper, a description of prior work that motivated and supports the foundation of the current work, and then an outline and/or detailed narrative of the procedures used to obtain the result. Peer-reviewed papers share this structure because they are generally targeted to (at least roughly) an audience of peers, and they're intended (at least generally) to expand the knowledge base in a particular field. But when scientific advances are described for alternate audiences for a different purpose (see more on that at on this page.), the work can often descend to an "isn't this neat?" pile of fluff.

You can do this. Resist the temptation to think your work is too complicated to understand for anyone except your colleagues — several renowned scientists are credited with saying something along the lines of "if you can't explain it to a ten-year-old, you don't understand it." The further your audience is from expertise, the more you'll depend upon analogy, and you'll also have to resign yourself to imprecision. If your audience really wants to understand your work, they'll need to get your same level of training sooner or later. So it becomes another balancing act: trying to retain the highest level of accuracy while still managing to reach your audience on their level.

By the way, once again the idea of the excitement of your work is buried in here. Depending upon the audience, they will have a different intrinsic level of interest in your work, and the further they are from your level, the more you will need to point out how your work intersects the things they're interested in — but don't get so carried away with trying to show your work is exciting that you neglect the three key questions. If you do, you'll have given your audience a few kernels of popcorn instead of a nice bowl of goulash or even a slab of black forest cake.

It's a balancing act, but no magic is necessary. Eventually, you'll get good at it. Or, you can remain focussed on your science and technology, and let us do the writing for you!

 

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