By Chops

This post isn’t about how to talk at conferences (even though they contain strangers), nor is it about the ‘elevator pitch’ sort of thing. What I’m on about today is something a bit less defined: how do you talk to random strangers who are interested in your science? Below, I’ll provide some examples and some strategies for people to help, and I’m also looking for people to share their own stories of when they’ve done this or their own strategies they have found successful.
I have been extremely privileged to have a lot of work travel in my career previous to coming to RSES. Most of this travel was domestically; I’ve seen a lot of hotel rooms in lots of different parts of Australia. I’ve also been lucky enough to get to go to the IGC in the Scandanavian countries in 2008 so I also got a bit of international travel.

Out this this, I’ve spent many hours stuck on planes next to various members of the public. Some people like to sit in the quiet on a plane and ignore you; some don’t. I’ve had some great conversations about my work and it has helped me immensely understand my own work. Here are some of the strategies I’ve used to have the 5 minute to 5 hour length conversations about my work with perfect strangers.

1. Start simple, but slowly go into more depth if people want.
I usually start out by explaining that I’m a geologist. Now, since I’m a geophysicist, that isn’t strictly true ;), but it’s a good place to start. As you get more in-depth you can explain the distinction. Truth is, no-one cares about the more subtleties of a field they know nothing about until you teach them a bit more about it.

2. Be prepared to go off on tangents.
If all you know is your narrow part of the field then you might struggle explaining it to strangers. Sometimes the ability to go off on more generic tangets (if that’s what the person you are talking to wants!) then that’s sort of useful. In terms of the geology/geophysics I do, plate tectonic general principles is a useful start or a bit of a story about the history of Australia. You don’t need to be an expert in these tangents, but this is where you get to apply your training from earth sciences to speak generally.

3. Understand the applications of your work/science.
Applications are a really big thing for most people. Again, they don’t care for the subtleties but they do care for why it might be useful. This doesn’t mean you need to know of really useful applications, but something other than “it’s just interesting to study” helps. I have a head start here, in that all of my work has been applied, but most things have some sort of an applicability. If nothing else, thinking about this in order to be prepared to speak to strangers might help you understand your own research that little bit better.

4. Analogies, diagrams and gesticulation can be your three best friends.
Some people are visual, so diagrams and lots of arm waving can help them understand what is going on. Other people need analogies to take in information. Sometimes they also need a bit of a ‘story’ – for these people, I like to lead in with the history of parts of the Australian continent (or the Earth) as that’s something I know a bit about, but even a history of how your science came to be can help a lot.

5. Be a good listener.
Although most people think explaining your science to a stranger involves lots of talking, truth is, it doesn’t. You might be dominating the conversation in terms of total words but the content and direction needs to be guided by the other party. The minute you dominate the conversation and take it in directions that don’t interest the other person, you lose them and then that’s it for the explaining.

You’ll be surprised where these conversations can take you. Out of it, I’ve stayed in touch with a heap of people and made some great friends. I’ve even managed to find people who are able to help me out with some aspect of my work this way. I’ve also had it happen to be in the reverse: on one flight, I sat next to someone who studies air crashes (excellent when you’re on a flight, you know). It was really cool to listen to how they investigate things and how they can piece together complex histories from small pieces of evidence. A bit like geology, really :).

Over to you guys now: tell us your strategies and stories of telling your science to strangers!