Words, Words, Words

If there’s one thing the Center for Communicating Science drummed into me at Stony Brook, it’s to be careful with words. You can teach your audience new words, but only a few: effectively, you have a vocabulary budget.

Sometimes, the risk is that your audience will misunderstand you. If you’re a biologist who talks about treating disease in a model, be careful: the public is more likely to think of mannequins than mice.


NOT what you’re talking about

Sometimes, though, the risk is subtler. Even if the audience understands you, you might still be using up your vocabulary budget.

Recently, Perimeter’s monthly Public Lecture was given by an expert on regenerative medicine. When talking about trying to heal eye tissue, she mentioned looking for a “pupillary response”.

Now, “pupillary response” isn’t exactly hard to decipher. It’s pretty clearly a response by the pupil of the eye. From there, you can think about how eyes respond to bright light, or to darkness, and have an idea of what she’s talking about.

So nobody is going to misunderstand “pupillary response”. Nonetheless, that chain of reasoning? It takes time, and it takes effort. People do have to stop and think, if only for a moment, to know what you mean.

That adds up. Every time your audience has to take a moment to think back and figure out what you just said? That eats into your vocabulary budget. Enough moments like that, and your audience won’t have the energy to follow what you’re saying: you’ll lose them.

The last few Public Lectures haven’t had as much online engagement as they used to. Lots of people still watch them, but fewer have been asking questions on twitter, for example. I have a few guesses about why this is…but I wonder if this kind of thing is part of it. The last few speakers have been more free with technical terms, more lax with their vocabulary budget. I worry that, while people still show up for the experience, they aren’t going away with any understanding.

We don’t need to dumb things down to be understood. (Or not very much anyway.) We do need to be careful with our words. Use our vocabulary budget sparingly, and we can really teach people. Spend it too fast…and we lose them.

5 thoughts on “Words, Words, Words

  1. Ken Martin

    Maybe your understanding of the concept is why I enjoy reading your blog. That being said, the corollary to this is that scientists must take from their time budget in order to prepare an engaging and understandable presentation. When the balance is right, it sure does make for enjoyable and thought provoking reading/listening. I think Sabine Hossenfelder at Backreaction does a pretty good job of this. Hope you have Happy Holidays Peter.


    1. Nick Heller

      Very well written. I really like the term ‘vocabulary budget’, as it adds additional context to the concept of communicating science.


  2. Wyrd Smythe

    It’s possible the world, or at least the USA, is in a bit of shock right now… people keeping their heads down waiting to see what happens over the next four years (early signs are a little scary to many). I’ve found it hard to have much interest in the more peripheral things lately. That might be another reason lecture engagement is down.

    As for the vocabulary thing, I’m a little caught between effectiveness and a wish that people view such lectures as opportunities to learn, and that certainly includes new terminology. (At least assuming that terminology is the correct and proper terminology for the situation.)

    But maybe it’s the difference between lectures and printed material. With the latter it’s easier to stop and look up a new term. In a lecture, as you suggest, it might take you out of the flow.

    (It may also point out a reason I’ve never really liked lectures as a way to learn. Spoken word is a very sloppy, inefficient way to transmit information.)



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