A KISS for communicating science

Jun 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Keep it simple stupid.

Four little words. So much wisdom.

Originally it was intended as a design principle for engineers at Lockheed Skunk Works. The basic idea was that the more sophisticated a design, the more likely something would go wrong, and the more difficult it would be to fix.

Although originated for applications, scientists can learn from this maxim too. Not only is there something to be said for reducing complexity in research but for bringing simplicity t0 how we communicate research.

You may perhaps recall my last post here at Scientopia and think, "Yes, of course! When we're talking science with non-scientists, we should simplify our pitch." It seems obvious, but it proves difficult for many. Science is so filled with jargon that Carl Zimmer started The Index of Banned Words for those who were learning to write about science for lay audiences to learn "to explain science in plain yet elegant English".

But there's more to it than that.

Keep it simple stupid.

The KISS principle is not about simplicity for simplicity's sake. Kelly Johnson, the first Skunk Works leader, was asking the engineers to think of those who would be working on their products in the field, their skill level, and the tools they would have available.

Scientific jargon is extraordinarily field- and even subfield-dependent. Yet many questions can no longer be confined to defined niches, and the principles and approaches are increasingly interdisciplinary (sorry, Carl 😉 ).

I am a biochemist, but my work strays occasionally into biophysics. I regularly work alongside a pharmacologist and an immunologist. Some days I'm collaborating with computer scientists and statisticians. On various projects, I have interacted with cell biologists, chemists, cancer biologists, and physiologists. Currently I'm trying to address a challenge in my research. The approaches that could potentially provide a solution have been used in very different applications for research at a much larger scale (literally), and I found myself writing a research summary for astrophysicists.

The people with whom I interact are intelligent and highly educated. But we don't always speak the same scientific language nor have we learned the same principles that form the foundations of our respective fields. Yet we still have to communicate. Each time I describe my research, I must consider: What is a reasonable expectation of their knowledge in this area? What matters to them? What is the most important thing I need them to understand? In other words, I need to think about the objective of this interaction and what skills and tools the other party has available. This is equally important in interactions with scientists and non-scientists.

Keep it simple stupid.

An implicit element of this maxim is efficiency. Have you ever noted the amount of superfluous and complex wording we add to our writing?

Of note, [event A] causes a change in [process B] that is proposed to result from the phenomenon of [thing C], which would be observed as an augmentation of [output Z] if [experiment X] was conducted with [modification Y].

Don't roll your eyes - you know you've seen something this egregious in a paper. If we're honest, every one of us has probably produced such a tortured sentence at some point in our careers. (Hopefully it happened early on and was quickly beaten out of us, but not all souls are so fortunate.)

Even native English speakers can contort word choice and sentence structure, making our writing painful to read. Hell, native English speakers might even be worse because our years of knowledge and experience provide the ability to convolute the simplest statement. Sometimes we're trying to avoid the use of "we"Or we feel an ingrained need to use the passive voice. Other times, we seem to think more "sophisticated" language somehow makes our writing more appealing. The truth is, complicated writing can obscure the most elegant experiments and striking data.

Keep it simple stupid.

But we mustn't confuse efficiency with brevity. Brevity is only efficient if the point remains clear and accurate.

We can easily fall into a pattern of describing things with concise, regular structures. This can be a good thing (think flow). But sometimes we come to a discussion point that doesn't fit the rhythm, and we still try to cram it into the same meter. There are times when a piece of information is so rich, we (and our audience) are better served by breaking it into pieces, giving attention to one facet before progressing to the next. Suddenly the story becomes much more melodic.

Keep it simple stupid.

Everyone has something competing for their attention: an upcoming grant on the mind, a timer for an experiment going off, kids playing, figuring out what's for dinner, trying to recall whether you turned off that piece of equipment ... The clearer the message, the more likely it is to rise above the noise.

And besides, no one likes to be made to feel like an idiot - not your colleagues, your collaborators, your supervisors, (sure as hell) your grant and manuscript reviewers, your friends, your family, or the public at large.

We can make our lives and theirs easier by removing unnecessary complexity from communication. And who knows? We might even find we're rewarded for it.

7 responses so far

  • Drugmonkey says:

    Well then how are you supposed to intimidate everyone else in the room with how smart you are?????

  • Pascale says:

    For example, when I was a medical student we were taught to describe the onset of various symptoms using the phrase "prior to" rather than before.
    "She suffered onset of chest pain 2 days prior to admission."
    "She developed chest pain 2 days before admission."
    Inefficient "turns of phrases" like this litter medicine and science. Using them makes us part of the club, so eliminating them is an uphill battle.

  • biochembelle says:

    I know you're being ironic, DM, but I swear to FSM there must be people who think this way.

    Pascale, you are so right. I try to self-edit to get rid of structures and phrases that I yell at other people for - and then realize how deeply ingrained some of these habits are!

  • [...] back at the Scientopia Guest Blog with a post about putting KISS to work with scientists and communication. Rate this:Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailMoreRedditPrintStumbleUponDiggLike this:LikeBe the first [...]

  • [...] See, I’m almost always on a cloud, oblivious to whatever is happening around me (apparently, people have been know to cheat on their significant others, in plain view, in front of me, yet I’m the last one to find out). Also, I don’t read instructions, I go and do, and when I hit a wall I go back and re-trace my steps (not very smart, maybe some vestigial cavewoman thing going on). I’m of the school of thought that things should be simple and if I have to spend too much time fumbling around and reading before I get started, I will quickly lose interest (life sci companies, make your instruments simple, and remember KISS). [...]

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