Evaluation of Language Use After RELATE: A Practice-Based Program to Improve Communication

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Elyse L. Aurbach, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Scientists are keenly aware that communicating research to people outside of their field is crucial, both for maintaining the support and funding of the scientific enterprise, and for generating collaborations across scientific fields. Scientists are trained communicators within their field, but many say they do not know how to become involved in efforts to communicate about their research more broadly. In addition, there are barriers to conveying scientific methods and findings to non-scientist audiences due in part to the frequent use of jargon in scientific communication. Given that scientific communication is key to the successful growth and impact of the scientific enterprise, we have implemented an initiative called RELATE (Researchers Expanding Lay-Audience Teaching and Engagement). Designed for graduate students in STEM fields, our approach partners targeted training in good communication practices for non-scientific audiences with community engagement activities (e.g., speaking at science cafes). As part of RELATE, we are studying the efficacy of our training approach, including a focus on participants’ use of jargon and incorporation of analogies and metaphors. In a preliminary evaluation, we viewed and analyzed two case study participants’ videos from before and after the workshop to understand how language use changed over the course of our training. We employed standard qualitative coding methods, and we semi-quantitatively examined the frequency that jargon words and analogies and metaphors were used. We found a 29% and 35% decrease in the number of jargon words used per minute between each participant’s pre- and post-workshop videos. Furthermore, participants increased their use of analogies and metaphors by 2.6- and 3.7-fold, respectively, between pre- and post-workshop videos. These metrics indicate that these two participants’ language use changed in ways that are more accessible to lay-audiences, while maintaining fidelity to their research. The decrease in jargon use indicates that participants were more aware of jargon and chose other terminology after undergoing training in lay-audience communication. The increase in analogy and metaphor use indicate that participants learned to emphasize these tools as a vehicle to facilitate understanding of complex topics after participating in lay-audience communication training. This preliminary analysis of two participants’ pre- and post-workshop videos is suggestive, and we are examining videos of other participants to better understand these trends.