Five ways to reach out to your non-science friends

by Gaia Cantelli, PhD

These tips will help avoid that glazed-over, unimpressed look.
Image credit: Quasimime, used via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0 licence.
It’s every science enthusiast’s nightmare: the glazed-over look of the terminally uninterested. As you talk with your family and friends about current events, the news, things that interest you or even your day-to-day job you will sometimes face anti-science backlash. Whether the people in your life are skeptical or plain uninterested, it can be hard to communicate if they just switch off. Here are a few tips to help you draw them in:

1. Ask questions
One of the main reasons why people disengage with science is that they often feel as though they are being lectured. Knowing something that someone else doesn’t automatically puts you in a position of power – and people resent that. A good way to combat this problem is to remind your friends that you care about their opinion, and value it. The easiest way to achieve this effect is to ask lots of questions! If you are having a debate about climate change, for example, ask what the other person thinks before you start spouting facts and figures. Be interested in their point of view. Understand where they are coming from. Not only it will help your friends engage with your science arguments, it will make you better friend!

2. Tailor yourself to your audience 
As well as making the whole conversation more comfortable, asking questions will enable you to frame your science stats in a way your friends will be receptive to. Understanding someone’s perspective is key to target the issues they care about. For example, if you are having a conversation about vaccination with your skeptical friend the way you frame your ideas will probably change wildly according to where your friend stands within the remit of its skepticism. If your friend has just had a small child, for instance, they may be mainly afraid of the unknown and you might want to focus your energy on giving them information on how safe and effective vaccinations are. On the other hand, if their main issue is that they don’t quite understand the immune system you can focus your time on discussing how inoculation works. Either approach would be useless and even counterproductive when delivered to the wrong audience, which is why it’s so important to read the room before you launch in your science-speak.

3. Avoid monologues
Once you do start getting into the meat-and-potatoes of science and facts, do make an effort to keep it short and sweet. People may stick with you for a few sentences on a topic they don’t care about, but they certainly won’t keep it together for much longer. You are probably also guilty of doing this – zoning out when the topic at hand is of no interest to you. Naturally, if you are really interested and excited about the facts you want to talk about it can be very, very difficult to keep things short and sweet. A good trick that may help is to try and imagine your conversation as a transcript: would the space taken up by your words be more or less the same as the space taken by their words? Do your best to balance out how much you speak, even if you are excited and don’t want to stop!

A neurotransmitter crosses a synapse a bit
like a ball thrown into a catching mitt.
Image Credit: Simon Clancy,
used via Flickr CC BY 2.0 licence
4. Simplify – and if you can’t simplify, just skip
One of the most effective ways you can keep science talk short and effective is by simplifying your ideas. While you can give people plenty of background information if they are interested, if you are trying to slip in a few stats and facts into a non-science conversation with a disengaged audience you want to keep your material really simple. You can simplify complicated ideas by chopping off all non-essential points, or by using real-life analogies. If you are trying to explain how the brain works, you could spend hours trying to give your friends all the background they need to understand the cell and molecular biology behind the effects of neurotransmitters. Or, you could use the simple analogy of a baseball falling into a baseball mitt – saving yourself time and keeping the conversation going!

5. Share your enthusiasm
Last but not least, remember to share your enthusiasm! If you are passionate about science, reaching out to your non-science friends and family should not only convey facts, but your love for knowledge and discovery. Genuine passion is what draws people in – and what may get them to become your science-friends after all.

Gaia Cantelli is a lecturing fellow at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com.

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