On the Merits of Raisin Bread
by Stephanie Whetstone
At Princeton Writes, we are often called upon to help scientists, mathematicians, and writers in other highly technical fields translate their work for the general public—to take complex ideas that people have been working on in labs or on advanced computers for years and bring them into the world in context, not by watering them down, but by making them more accessible to non-specialists. After all, if you can explain your work to funders to continue your research on the human brain or generate interest in things like the impacts of climate change, your work can truly change the world for the better!
In academia, though, as in any specialized field, scholars are susceptible to what we call “the curse of knowledge.” They speak in a shorthand of terms and acronyms that mean nothing, or worse, different things, to a general audience. And then there is the problem of time. How can they be expected to condense several years of research, huge amounts of data, the mysteries of the universe, and detailed results from complex experiments into, say, a thirty-minute (or even an hour-long) presentation? Real answer: They can’t! But there is a way to deliver the most pertinent information about even highly technical research clearly and concisely to broad audiences.
The first and most important things to consider are the same things we consider any time we write: audience and purpose. Think about who will be in your audience—People in your field? Colleagues in your broader discipline? The University community? The world? Depending on your audience’s level of expertise with your topic, you may need to define important terms when you first use them and limit detailed graphs, charts, and equations. You may also need to focus your presentation on a few key points, rather than attempting to present everything you have learned in your PhD program or in your years as an engineer.
You also need to be clear about your purpose. Usually, the purpose of a short public presentation is to get the audience excited about how your work can positively impact them, so they will want to learn more. Why you are doing what you do and how it could potentially be applied to improve a problem are important questions to answer for a lay audience, or any audience, for that matter! Then they can read your papers and connect the brilliant ideas they find there to you!
Now, to the raisin bread. Our director, John Weeren, often cites a story about Princeton Physicist Lyman Page, who uses the image of a loaf of raisin bread to describe the expansion of the universe, with the raisins standing in for galaxies. As the bread rises, the raisins get farther and farther apart. This simple analogy quickly and effectively explains to a lay audience what a whole deck of slides full of equations might not. Images stick with us, especially if they are familiar to our own life experience, like raisin bread.
Finally, remember that in any presentation, you are your message. Limit the amount of information on your slides and speak directly to your audience about your work, using the words and images on the slides as prompts from which to generate more detail. If someone only wanted the information about your research, they could likely read about it online. Often they come to a presentation to be in the presence of an accomplished scholar, share in your excitement about your work, and maybe get a chance to ask a question they have always wondered about. Everyone wants to walk away from the experience feeling not befuddled but smarter and better informed.
If you’d like help condensing your research or editing your slides for a presentation, please make an appointment. Princeton Writes can help!