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How to explain your research without getting blank stares at your next dinner party

Every researcher dreads that moment. The moment you realise you’ve become THAT person. The person at the dinner table who provokes polite smiles, vacuous eye contact and escapist flights of fantasy to remote tropical islands.

When you’ve spent months passionately unlocking the influence of particle orientation on fluid flow through a randomly packed bed of ellipsoids, it is hard to accept this public shunning. Who wouldn’t take exception to having their life’s work upstaged by “this week’s unseasonably chilly weather” as the topic of conversation?!

So how do you keep the attention of your fellow dinner guests, lure them into your world and impress them with your insights? Here are a few tips from the trenches:

Gauge your audience

When you buy a house, the golden rule is location, location, location. When you’re trying to hold the attention of people at a dinner party, the golden rule is audience, audience, audience. You have to know who is sharing the dinner table with you.

For example, if you’re an analytical chemist doing nanotesting for methoxypyrazine levels in Sauvignon blanc wines and you find yourself at table with a bunch of viticulturists, you’ve hit the jackpot. Don’t hold back. Thrill them with your insights into the effects that 2-isobutyl-3-methoxypyrazine and 2-isopropyl-3-methoxypyrazine compounds have on the flavour profile of Sauvignon blanc wines.

On the other hand, if you're sharing that table with a circle of wine-loving poets or English teachers, you’ll have to adopt a completely different approach. Point to the wine in their glasses and explain that methoxypyrazine contributes to the distinctive herbaceous, bell pepper aromas in Sauvignon blanc. Explain lyrically that these aromas provide the crisp, elegant freshness associated with cool climate production areas. I bet you a bell pepper you’ll have them riveted within seconds with your beautiful, sensory descriptions.

Any good conversation starts with knowing your audience, adapting your story to their interests and finding common ground.

Concentrate on the why

Many researchers get so entangled in what they do that they forget to communicate the why of their research. In social contexts where you are not amongst your scientific peers, the why becomes critical. Why is your research important? How does it contribute to making the world a better, safer, richer, more humane or more connected place? That’s what people want to hear.

Let’s say you are a biomedical electronic engineer doing research on an inflammation-detecting biosensor using amyloid fibrin as an inflammatory marker. Your research title may mean nothing to the layperson, but explain that the biosensor you’re developing can potentially diagnose cancer and Alzheimers long before they clearly present as illnesses, and you’ll have your dinner mates’ attention.

If you want to make your research relevant to your audience, avoid the how and focus on the why.

Shed the jargon

Shed the jargon and go for explanations that engage the senses and the minds of those sitting at the dinner table with you. Use simple metaphors to explain complex concepts.

I recently listened to a talk by Susan Lindquist who compared how proteins fold in your cells to how brass instruments are folded from metal. A French horn makes a beautiful sound if its tubes are folded correctly but a ghastly one if the tubes are damaged or folded imperfectly. Now that’s an excellent metaphor for illustrating how protein-folding gone awry causes disease in the body.

Do what Susan does: take your audience from the known to the unknown with well-chosen word pictures they can relate to. Do not lose them by refusing to shed the jargon.

Show interest in others

Because conversations are two-way affairs, it is essential not to hog the dinner conversation. You may be excited about SAFT equations of state or anaerobic digestion, but that doesn’t mean your fellow dinner guests will be open to 30-minute monologues on these topics. Listening with intent and responding with real interest is just as important as sharing your own research. If you are a good listener, the other dinner guests are likely to return the favour and show interest in your research when it’s your turn to talk.

Whatever you do, do not kill the conversation by loudly declaring "I am an astrophysicist" or "I am a molecular biologist” and expecting the whole dinner table to bow to your superior knowledge and put up with jargon-infused ramblings about the inner workings of your research.

There is always the temptation to treat the dinner table as your own scientific podium, but it isn’t, of course. At dinner parties, reciprocal flow is more important than anything else. So make your peace with occasionally being upstaged by the chilly weather.


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