Houston voices

How to engage potential clients or investors for your science-based startup or technology

Words are hard. Here's how to pick the best ones to use to better communicate your science-based startup's mission. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

So you're a researcher. Communicating science to a non-scientific audience scares the chemistry out of you.

You've spent your entire career studying fungiform papillae density. The mere thought of fungiform papillae density gives you a rush that even love cannot provide. You know everything about fungiform papillae density. One day you have an interview with a reporter. You're preparing to present at a conference for shareholders. You're writing a grant application. Or you're just at the family cookout and your crazy Uncle Joe with the glass eye wants to know what you do for work.

It's time.

This is the moment where you have to reach deep within yourself to scrape every bit of communications skill in your body. It's time to do what has challenged even the most brilliant scientific minds for ages: explain your work simply.

Yes, there is difficulty in simplicity. The irony is as rich as it is tragic.

Thankfully, there is hope. There are plenty of things you can do to ensure your message is communicated effectively to your non-scientific audience.

Communicating science with better word choices

The old '80s band Missing Persons once sang, "What are words for, when no one listens anymore?"

If what you're saying is not engaging, direct, or simple to understand, your listener will stop listening. The same thing is true for writing.

The words you use matter. They determine whether or not your audience will lock on to what you're trying to convey. Use language that is clear and simple and registers your message.

Personal pronouns like I, you, we help connect readers with the writer and his or her message. Such pronouns present your writing as more of a conversation. People tend to invest more in a conversation than a research paper. Conversations are natural and everyone understands them because everyone is experienced with them. The same cannot be said for research papers about, say, the role of lactic acid production by probiotic Lactobacillus species.

Let's look at the pronouns in action. In the first sentence, you'll see an unnecessarily long, bombastic, impersonal message. In the second, you'll find a more personable, inviting message:

Investigators with supplemental queries or interest in funding opportunities should contact the program.

Contact us if you are interested in funding opportunities.

Words are choice

Your word choices are vital in helping your readers digest your material. Choosing the appropriate words in communicating science stories can not only capture your readers' attention, but keep it.

Use positive words over negative ones. Negative words like don't or not can confuse readers.

Consider this sentence: "The machine doesn't run if you don't follow these instructions exactly as they are written."

It's confusing, isn't it?

Let's rework it with positive words: "The machine will run better if you follow these instructions exactly."

Now there's a sentence that inspires hope.

Inclusive language also helps everyone feel engaged. Stay away from male only pronouns like he and his. Unless you're writing a research paper specifically about men, it's always better to use inclusive language so that non-male readers can follow along and become invested in what you're communicating.

Simple sentences

Using direct, efficiently constructed sentences well get your point across most effectively. According to the search engine optimization platform Yoast, you should keep your sentences under 20 words. Keeping it short with no more than two punctuation points in the body of the sentence will help the reader understand your message. It lets them breathe. It's not overwhelming when it's short.

Make sure to keep your sentences simple, too. Make sure you only cover one idea in every sentence. Keep each paragraph centered on one theme only. Introducing more than one idea or theme will dilute the focus a reader has, because he or she has to divide their attention to give to more things.

Cut the fat. You don't need intensifiers like very, really, actually, or carefully in communicating science stories. They don't really have a purpose. If something is hot and you want to emphasize that point, don't describe it as "really hot." Instead, say that it's "dangerously hot." Say that people have been hospitalized from touching this hot thing. Now you're really saying something.

Verbs with a vengence

Summon the absolute power of verbs.

"Frankie broke the guitar" is a much more vivid portrayal of what happened than "The guitar was broken by Frankie."

Passive voice is often used in a not-so-creative way to hide wrongdoing.

"The money was taken."

Who took the money? The reader might conclude that the writer is hiding something.

"The store manager took the money."

Now you're telling us something we can use. Arrest the store manager.

What you just witnessed is the difference between passive voice (the former) and the active voice (the latter).

It's undeniable that the choices you make with your words and sentences can either connect or kill your audience's interest. They can make the process of communicating science easier or put the brakes on.

Making your technical paper a casual conversation without compromising the integrity of your research helps the lay audience follow along. Using active voice over passive voice helps your readers maintain interest because you're showing a sense of action where someone is doing something. Using universal pronouns expands your reach because everyone can feel they can invest in your writing. Hope is not lost. You can communicate even the most arcane material to the least scientific audiences.

"It is easy for us to forget the power of words. We use them the way an engineer uses a slide rule or a surgeon uses a scalpel." – Jonathan Capehart, Pulitzer Prize winner, The Washington Post.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Rene Cantu is the writer and editor at UH Division of Research.

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Building Houston

 
 

Vanessa Wyche, director of the Johnson Space Center, gave the keynote address at this year's State of Space event. Screenshot via houston.org

Is the Space City poised to continue its reign as an innovative hub for space exploration? All signs point to yes, according to a group of experts.

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual State of Space this week. The virtual event featured a keynote address from Vanessa Wyche, director of NASA Johnson Space Center, and a panel moderated by David Alexander, chair of aerospace and aviation committee at the GHP and the director of the Rice Space Institute.

The conversations focused on the space innovation activity happening in Houston, as well as an update on the industry as a whole has space commercialization continues to develop. All the speakers addressed how Houston has what it takes to remain a hub for the sector.

"The future looks very bright for Houston that we will remain a leader in Houston spaceflight," Wyche says in her address.

Here are a few other memorable moments from the event.

"Houston, I feel, is poised to be a leader. We have led in human space flight, and we will a leader in commercialization."

— Wyche says in her keynote address, which gave a thorough overview of what all NASA is working on at JSC. She calls out specifically how startups are a driving force in commercialization. JSC is working with local accelerator programs at The Ion and MassChallenge.

"These startups help us to connect to tomorrow's space innovation leaders, and gives our team the opportunity to mentor these entrepreneurs as we work to advance both our scientific and technical knowledge," she says.

"The ability to have a place where government, academia, and industry can come together and share ideas and innovation is incredibly powerful."

​— Steve Altemus, president and CEO of Intuitive Machines LLC, specifically talking about the Houston Spaceport, where Intuitive Machines has signed on as a tenant. Altemus adds that a major key to leading space commercialization is a trained workforce, which the spaceport is focused on cultivating.

"We shouldn't discount the character that Houston has from the standpoint as a great place to build a business."

— Tim Kopra, vice president of robotics and space at MDA Ltd., says, adding that Houston is a big city that feels like a small town. "We need to incentivize companies to come and stay," he says.

"Great cities — like great companies — understand that if you're still, you're probably moving backwards. ... I think Houston gets it in that regard."

— Todd May, senior vice president of science and space at KBR, says, adding that Houston realizes it needs to be on the offensive side to bring innovation to the game, positioning the city very well for the future.

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