Whenever we are captivated with great ideas, jokes and stories we want to share them with people we like. These ways of conveying information are most of the time simple and easy to understand. However, things can go awry when our intention is to discuss a scientific topic with our friends.
Due to the failures of the education system (particularly in teaching methodology), people mistakenly and prematurely consider scientific conversations tremendously boring. But we can fix that prejudice if we manage to make people look at these things from different angle.
How to start
A good start is everything. Think of it is as getting the audience to the theatre for your free short spoken word performance.
Know Your Audience
First of all, you have to take the level of your interlocutor’s intelligence into consideration. If you know that this person is indeed interested in studying and feels comfortable with scientific terminology, then feel free to go to the point right away. If you strongly doubt his or her abilities to be a good listener – follow the tips that are listed below.
If you present information in a sophisticated way, your conversation partner will remember it for an extremely short period of time. But if you embellish the road of knowledge with a bunch of shiny and weird associative ornamentations, they could remember every single detail for their lifetime.
Don’t Include Formulas in Your Introduction
Even E=mc^2 can frighten off your friend quicker than a wild rabbit who you try to pick up from a minefield. But if you still want to fascinate them with the world of linear equations, save that transition for the moment when you already got them hooked.
There are three main ways to intrigue people verbally.
The first thing that you’re about to say should be short and intriguing. Just like the title of the news article, that makes you want to click on it.
Wrong way: Residence on Mars is fraught with making your hippocampus 3% smaller in 30 days
Right way: Being on Mars will make your brain smaller
You can also start off with a question, but you have to ask it the right way. If you start with “Do/did you know” – you risk being seen as a smartass. For this reason, it is better to pick another combination of words. It has to be one, that has more chances to make them want to hear your next sentence, such as:
- Do you want to regret knowing something?
- Have you ever tried to forget something you learned in science class?
- Do you need a reason to stay up at night thinking of science?
At first, these questions don’t seem to be friendly, but people tend to find the concept of this provocative start of conversation pretty attractive. That is why questions should contain this form of provocation if your goal is to make people curious to hear the answers.
Questment is an informative question that includes your statement or opinion about the specific area that you want to talk about. Here are some examples of how to play both sides of the fence if you want to implement your statement in the form of a question:
• Do you think it is fair that the media is silent about the benefits of smoking?
• Why can’t people accept that genetically modified organisms are harmless?
This trick can have potential, but it also can lead to some pitfalls, since it has very good chances of turning into an expressive dispute. People might be sceptical and disagree with your statement immediately. But at the same time, if the person you are speaking to is open-minded, you can successfully convey your side argument during the conversation. Be mindful that if that person is biased against your side, you may poison your relationships. Especially if s/he might have a useless and strong belief system, that s not grounded with logic.
Appeal to Their Personal Memories
Another tactic that you can use is to dig into their past. This trick requires tremendous accuracy since you don’t want to dig into their memories too deeply. For example, if you compare their recent break up to the polygamous behaviour of lions they might not even hear the rest of your short lecture about wild pride of a savanna. Be cautious with this approach if you don’t want to lose their attention completely in just a few seconds. Instead, you can start by comparing the distance of their recent trip to Alabama, to the average distance that a lion can cover in 24 hours.
How to go on
Now that you have a listener (or even a couple of listeners) on attending your “show”, your main goal is not to make them leave your “performance” in the middle of it.
A great example of the helpfulness of a metaphor during an explanation was given by Elon Musk during his recent appearance on Joe Rogan Experience. He explained that it is safer to stay underground during an earthquake. Because tunnels create the “cage protection” much like the ribs of the snake. When the ground starts to shake on the surface, the tunnel can move almost like a snake. This sort of comparison will stay in the head of a listener long after they leave. So, use this example as a starting place to develop your own scientific metaphors.
Visualization can play a definitive role in your explanation. If you tell someone how the moon spins around the Earth, your listener might not understand you correctly. However, if you supplement your speech by describing a ping pong ball and a watermelon, chances are they grasp your meaning with much more clarity.
Be selective in choosing your object! Otherwise, if your friend is “hungry” he will only think of “watermelon” that you hold in your hand.
Don’t Overload Them with Information
Give them small portions of what you want them to know. If they ask for more be careful with how you dole out the information. The side effects can be useful, as well as harmful. Example:
Positive impact: a person will start to respect scientists and follow the news of their studies (if you tell them how much work they do to find a cure from cancer)
Negative effect: the person will start to have a prejudice that science is boring.
How to Finish
If your conversation went well, you can leave them with the idea that what you told them was only the tip of an enormous iceberg. On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if despite those tips your message was not conveyed to their attention successfully. At the end of the day, science is not for everybody.