On Wednesday March 14th. News headlines reported the death Stephen Hawking, at the age of 76.
Hawking was known not only as a renowned physicist, but also one of the world’s most celebrated science communicators. This was despite his personal struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Stephen Hawking has presented many theories, to the scientific community, covering such subjects as Black Hole Mechanics or TheUncertainty Principle that would have been incomprehensible to someone of my scientific background. But, in his book “A Brief History of Time”, Hawking ventured to make these concepts accessible to all. He wanted to share his knowledge and theories with the world, in a way that a layman could understand.
As Derek Hawkins explained in The Washington Post (Wed., March 14, 2018):
“In 1982, Stephen Hawking decided to put his years of ground-breaking research in theoretical physics into book form. His goal, he said, was to “explain how far we had come in our understanding of the universe and how humankind might be close to finding a unified theory of the cosmos.”
Several years and many rewrites later, Hawking’s A Brief History of Time defied all those expectations. The first run sold out in the United States in a matter of days, and soon the 200-some-page account of the origin and fate of the universe was flying off the shelves worldwide. It spent 147 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and a record-breaking 237 weeks on the Times of London bestseller list. To date, more than 10 million copies have been sold and the book has been translated into dozens of languages.”
Even Hawking himself struggled with the reason as to why his book had become so popular “It’s difficult for me to be objective,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
But, it is clear that he had an ability to explain complex concepts in theoretical physics, using a sense of humour and analogy, enabling us to understand his reasoning by relating his theories and observations to those more familiar to our own experiences.
Indeed, upon publication, the New York Times called Hawking’s work “a jaunty and absolutely clear little book” that shared his ideas about the universe “with everyone who can read.”
There is a message here for all of us who are required to present our ideas and opinions, whether in written or oral form.
It is not only important, but necessary that we convey them in a way that our audience can understand. That is not to say that we talk down to our listeners and readers, but are aware of the fact that many people may not have had experienced things in the same way that we may have. This is particularly relevant when introducing people to a way of seeing, approaching and thinking about new ideas.
If your subject matter is of a technical nature, I found some valuable tips included in an article for the British Council in May 2015 entitled “How to present complex ideas clearly” by Dr. Emily Grossman, an expert in molecular biology, broadcaster and educator. Grossman states:
“When trying to explain complex information to an audience, the first task is to get the content of what you're saying right. You can’t hide poor or boring content behind a charismatic delivery technique, and expect your audience to let you get away with it. But how we communicate is also crucial. When someone is speaking, most of the information we receive comes through their body language, enthusiasm and tone of voice. It's our overall experience of the speaker that counts.”
She explains that the reason for this is that:
“Our brains contain ‘mirror neurons’ which automatically make us copy the emotions of the person we are engaging with. Have you ever noticed that if you see someone in the street smiling, you will start to smile too? If a speaker appears happy and relaxed, the audience will feel that way too, and will be more likely to absorb the information the speaker is trying to get across.
The more complex the information, the more important this is. Imagine trying to explain your latest scientific discovery in a flat, monotone voice. If you don't sound excited, the listener won't feel excited either. They will find it harder to engage with the information, and therefore, crucially, it will be more of a challenge for them to understand it.”
Grossman also addresses the issue of how much technical detail to include:
“Generally, as little as possible! Try not to use technical language. If you do, make sure it is absolutely necessary in order to help the audience understand or appreciate your point – and ensure that you explain the word or term immediately afterwards.
Remember that there is a difference between using language that is simple (easy to understand), and simplistic (treating the problem as if it is not actually very complex at all). Keep your words as simple and clear as possible, and use real-life examples and illustrations where possible. But don’t patronise your audience by pretending that something is not as complicated as it really is.”
Much of what Grossman is saying can be applied whether you are covering something that is highly technical or not. Like Hawking, she recommends the use of analogy. It is also essential to clarify make everything you say, or write, without patronising your audience.
Like Stephen Hawking, we must find a way to share our passion for a subject in a way that we can communicate to the widest of audiences.