I was rewatching Ghostbusters II, and Winston Zeddemore taught me something about how to communicate a complex subject effectively.
It was a throwaway scene that looked uncomfortably familiar. There was a problem, and the team needed the help of someone in power. They turned to the mayor, trying to convince him that there was a river of evil, thought-responsive pink slime under the city. Ray (Dan Aykroyd) tried first.
1) Kiss butt.
2) Describe in sciency words (like “psychomagnotheric”) the problem.
3) Expect the mayor to do something.
What was the result? The mayor didn’t get it, and Ray was nearly responsible for the destruction of NYC.
Now the Ghostbusters are four people: two egghead academics (Ray and Egon), one wildcard (Pete), and one regular guy (Winston). Winston saved the day and taught us all an important lesson about communicating a complicated, technical, yet important scientific point.
1) Know his audience is an unfamiliar with this field and might be antagonistic.
2) Explain the essential takeaway of the problem without relying on jargon.
3) Make his audience care by connecting with something they care about.
The mayor is visibly more inclined to think about this version of the story.
So what can we learn from Winston’s technique?
The only hard-fast rule of communication as far as I can tell is KNOW THY AUDIENCE. Ray and Egon use big words that an uninitiated listener wouldn’t know. Would you stop and listen to anyone (even in a lab coat) talking about psychomagnotheric anything? No, because you don’t care. The words important to us as scientists usually mean little to those outside our immediate fields. I know it’s a big deal with someone successfully performs crystallography for an important protein, but try telling that to the mayor of New York City.
Why not say what you would say after “basically…?” When I write something complicated, and can feel myself wording it into knots, I reboot and start the sentence again with “basically.” For some reason, this is especially useful for writing first sentence of paragraphs of science manuscripts. My goal is to write these so that the paper is understandable by reading only these first sentences. Start with the big point.
In the end, both Ray and Winston failed. This was at least partly because they didn’t know exactly what it is they wanted from mayor. This may have doomed them to fail the first round, but because of Winston’s tactics, the mayor knew to call the Ghostbusters when it all went south.
Thank you for saving the world, Winston Zeddemore, with your superior communication skills.