Communication is very much like marketing, where how you say something depends entirely on who you are talking to. For example, this blog is for casual readers with various types of education and background. I prefer to write content here in a very causal and conversational tone. I’m okay starting a sentence with a conjugation and ending one with a preposition. Grammar rules be damned. That is a conscious style choice that I think works best for my targeted audience.
When it comes to writing about science, especially from a scientist’s point-of-view, rewriting something for different audiences may seem like a waste of time. There is an ego involved that scientists’ believe others should try harder and learn more so that they can be on the same level with them, the scientist. Otherwise, “its too complicated.”
I call bullshit.
I’m a scientist. You can see that by looking through my publications. But I’m also a communicator. I care about people knowing why things matter. I’m willing to put in the effort to help others understand what I’m talking about and why it is important. Apparently, so are YOU. That is why you are reading this post.
So, let’s begin. How do you write your research for different audiences?
First, I want to clarify what I mean by different audiences? I usually try to keep it simple. I tend to clump audiences into three distinct groups: public, policymakers, and peers. The public are the average Joes who lack the same level of education, interest, or background as you. But if they see something cool or something affects them personally, then you have their attention.
You need to answer this question first (Public):
Why should they care?
Next, is the policymaker. These are your politicians, regulators, funders, administrators, etc. These are the people who allow you to do your research, they have a passing knowledge of the content, but mainly they need to decide if what you’re doing is worthwhile enough to keep you doing it.
You need to answer this question first (Policymaker):
What can they do about it?
Lastly, there are your peers. These are people like you. Fellow researchers, instructors, teachers. Those who are well-informed and passionate. These are the folks you, as a scientist, are probably most familiar and comfortable writing for. In fact, 95% of what you’ve ever written probably has been targeted at this audience.
You need to answer this question first (Peer):
Where do we go from here?
But it is time to expand your horizon and grow as a writer. Time to be more than just a scientist.
Let’s go through an actual example of translating science content for the three different audiences. Here is a study I published a couple of years ago in the Journal of Hydrology:
SOBIESZCZYK, STEVEN, KEITH, M.K., ROUNDS, S.A., AND GOLDMAN, J.H., 2014, INVESTIGATING ORGANIC MATTER IN FANNO CREEK, OREGON, PART 1 OF 3: ESTIMATING ANNUAL FOLIAR BIOMASS FOR A DECIDUOUS-DOMINANT URBAN RIPARIAN CORRIDOR, J. HYDROL., V. 519D, P. 3001–3009
Writing for Peers
I’ll start with the easy stuff. This is how you would write professionally for other scientists.
I’ll copy my abstract from the article since I’ve already got this “writing for peers” shit covered. The wording and style should look and sound very familiar to you if you are a scientist.
Estimating annual foliar biomass for a deciduous-dominant urban riparian corridor
For this study, we explored the amount, type, and distribution of foliar biomass that is deposited annually as leaf litter to Fanno Creek and its floodplain in Portland, Oregon, USA. Organic matter is a significant contributor to the decreased dissolved oxygen concentrations observed in Fanno Creek each year and leaf litter is amongst the largest sources of organic matter to the stream channel and floodplain. Using a combination of field measurements and light detection and ranging (lidar) point cloud data, the annual foliar biomass was estimated for 13 stream reaches along the creek. Biomass estimates were divided into two sets: (1) the annual foliage available from the entire floodplain overstory canopy, and (2) the annual foliage overhanging the stream, which likely contributes leaf litter directly to the creek each year. Based on these computations, an estimated 991 (±22%) metric tons (tonnes, t) of foliar biomass is produced annually above the floodplain, with about 136 t (±24%) of that foliage falling directly into Fanno Creek. The distribution of foliar biomass varies by reach, with between 150 and 640 t/km2 produced along the floodplain and between 400 and 1100 t/km2 available over the channel. Biomass estimates vary by reach based primarily on the density of tree cover, with forest-dominant reaches containing more mature deciduous trees with broader tree canopies than either wetland or urban-dominant reaches, thus supplying more organic material to the creek. By quantifying the foliar biomass along Fanno Creek we have provided a reach-scale assessment of terrestrial organic matter loading, thereby providing land managers useful information for planning future restoration efforts.
Looks similar to what you write, eh? Good. Hopefully, that should hopefully give me a bit of street cred.
Now, let’s aim to translate that same material into one a policymaker could appreciate.
Tips for “Peer” Presentations
Writing for Policymakers
Measuring the contribution and effect of leaf litter on water quality in an urban stream
For this study, we wanted to identify and measure the source, type, and quantity of leaf litter entering Fanno Creek each year. Water-quality issues seen in Fanno Creek, including low dissolved oxygen, high stream temperature, and high turbidity, are tied directly to the availability or contribution of leaves from the overhanging tree canopy. Estimates of the leaf litter vary along the creek, based primarily on the density of tree cover. As expected, densely forested reaches with more mature trees supply more leaves than either sparsely vegetated wetland or urban-dominant reaches. However, the slow moving or stagnant water in the wetland reaches are much more active at breaking down the leaf litter, thus exacerbating instream water-quality concerns. Therefore, its not necessarily the leaf production that is concerning, but rather the slow transport of the leaf litter through the creek. By mapping the sources of leaves, as well as highlighting areas where instream processes break down and alter the leaf composition, we have provided a reach-scale assessment that land managers can use for planning future restoration efforts.
A little bit easier to understand, right? Notice how there is less need for actual data values. What is more important is the consequence and purpose of the study. The study was about tracking how trees contributed to instream issues. Not only that, but where and what the results meant to those who made decisions. I could have said we measured 991 metric tons, but what does that mean? Is that a lot? Is that more than you would expect? Less? Should that be changed? For policymakers, it about “why something matters” and “what can they do with this information.”
Policymakers make decisions. Help them come to the correct one.
Tips for “Policymaker” Presentations
Writing for Public
Do leaves really affect water quality in a stream?
For this study, we looked at how trees along a city stream can affect water quality. Trees provide many benefits, such as shading to keep a stream cool, or bank stability to keep a stream from eroding away nearby houses. However, there are some potential issues, as well. For example, if too many leaves fall into a stream and stay long enough that microbes break them down, then the decomposing leaves may adversely affect of the stream quality. Tiny organisms pull oxygen from the stream as they break down the leaves. If the amount of air in the water decreases, it begins to affect the ability of fish to breath.
Trees are needed to produce food, but like most meals, too much food (or keeping the food around for too long) is not good. Therefore, figuring out where, how big, and what type of trees live along along Fanno Creek is the first step toward answering the question of “what effect do trees have on water quality?”
For our study, we were able to discover that although certain parts of stream supplied a lot of leaf litter, it was actually the wetland areas with few trees and slower water that allowed for the upstream leaf material to break down.
Managing this stream means trying to address whether you want to reduce the available leaves entering the stream or speed up the flow through the wetland areas. Either solution poses additional problems, but at least there is now evidence showing the way leaves affect the water quality of the stream.
Twitter post (example)
New Study: Scientists count how many leaves fall into stream…wait? what? Seriously?!? [bitly.link] #biomass
Tips for Presenting to a General Audience
And there you have it. Three stories, one study. It all has to do with context and meeting your audience’s needs. There is no data provided in the public description, because “who cares.” It is more important to explain what is happening at the broadest level so that they can understand why it’s important.
Policymakers need to know about consequences with enough data to justify your and their decisions.
Peers want to know methods and values. How certain are you that the information is correct? It doesn’t really matter if someone can use it properly, it’s about advancing the science and providing a tool that someone else may be able to replicate if they need to answer a similar question.
That’s all I have for this post. Please let me know what you think with comments below. Share, like, or subscribe and I’ll make sure you continue to receive my future posts.
Thanks for reading.
Previously published at SteveSobie.com
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