How to write a lay summary

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Writing about research for a lay audience is not just about replacing long words with short ones. It’s as much about what you decide to tell them, and how your explanation flows. For a medical research charity, this is absolutely critical. Many of your supporters will not be experts in research, but they do want to know how their donations are used. 

I’ve written elsewhere about how charities make their lay summary pages clear and visually engaging. In this blog, I’ll be focusing on the text on these pages.

I will show you the method I use to best explain research to make it easier for your audience to understand.  There is also a step-by-step guide to how you can apply this method. 

The journey

The Journey for an audience

I see explaining science to someone as a journey. This is not a novel concept at all, I’ll admit – but I think it fits.

Your audience’s journey starts at Point A – the knowledge that they already have about the topic. It ends at Point B – a new state, where they now know something they didn’t know before. 

Your audience can’t move instantly from A to B. They have to make a journey, and your aim as the ‘explainer’ is to make that journey easy for them. 

As I said, this is not a new concept. But when we tend to write an explanation of some research, it’s easy to focus on the length of this journey. We get hung up on making the journey as short as possible. Instead, we should be focusing on making it as easy as possible. There is a difference, which I’ll get onto in a bit. 

New information

I’d like to add another little concept to this model, about new pieces of information. 

As you explain some new research, or a project or whatever – by definition, your audience will learn new things that they didn’t know before. Let’s call these new pieces of information a science nugget.

These science nuggets can take many forms:

  • The name of a protein or a gene;
  • A new concept in biology – e.g. apoptosis, the idea that our body’s cells are programmed to die in response to certain stimuli;
  • New information about an old concept – e.g. that our immune system protects from disease, but that it also contributes towards disease too, like arthritis or ulcerative colitis;
  • A link between two concepts – e.g. that not everyone responds to drugs in the same way, and that our genes might have a role to play in this. 

And so on. The general gist is that these nuggets are new to the audience. Nuggets are needed so the audience understands what it is you’re trying to get across. 

The burden of the nuggets

These science nuggets are useful and needed. But they are not benign – they are a burden for your audience in two ways:

  1. They are brand new information that they must learn and understand. Learning new things is difficult.  (“what’s this thing called FADD? Why do I need to know this? And now I have to remember this? Urgh.”)
  2. They must be ‘deployed’ at the right time. That name of that gene must be ‘carried’ by the brain and used at the right time to understand the whole piece (“what was FADD again? Oh yes, right, I remember, so that’s FADD and it’s doing blah blah blah…”)

They are also a burden for you as an explainer. Knowing that a nugget is a new piece of information means you have to spend time explaining what it is before you can move on with your journey from A to B. That could be a sentence or two or three or more. It’s easy therefore to get side-tracked and spend so much time explaining the nugget that you lose track of the journey as a whole.  

Not all journeys are equal

Back to our journey from A to B. Some destinations (and some journeys) are going to require your audience to learn more new concepts than others – more nuggets to pick up. 

Your task as an explainer is not just to make the journey from A to B short. It’s to make it as easy for your audience as possible by reducing the number of nuggets they must collect on the way. 

This is the difference between an explanation that is short and one that is easy. If we solely focus on making the journey short, the temptation is to quickly skip through by expecting our audience to make some giant leaps in logic and readily pick up brand new ideas. That is not an easy thing for anyone to do. Focus instead on making the journey easy, by reducing the number of ‘giant leaps’ your audience needs to make. 

How to make research understandable

Below I explain how I go about this, using the ‘journey’ analogy above. 

Note, to make things a bit clearer, I’m using the example of writing a lay summary about a research project. But this could just as easily be applied to a news story about a research paper, or an update from a researcher which you’re feeding back to a donor. 

1. Decide on Point B first

Think about all the things that your audience could get from this particular research project. For some research projects, there might be only one that really stands out – and that’s fine. But for others, there might be a few different final destinations. For now, pick one. Pick the one which resonates most with your audience – or, to use the analogy above, the final destination which would be worth the journey to them. 

The point of this is that you get to choose the destination. It is not always predestined for you.

2. Think about Point A

You’ve got an idea of where your audience is heading – where are they now? What do they know about this topic right now? What don’t they know?

This is always difficult. There’s a fine balance to make between assuming too much knowledge (and so not explaining enough), or assuming too little knowledge, and therefore ‘speaking down’ to your audience, which can feel patronising. 

If you’re explaining something in-person to an audience, you’re able to ask questions on the day about what they know about a topic (or get a sense from their reaction to you). If you’re writing something for someone to read later, you’ll just have to make an educated guess on where Point A lies.

3. What are the routes between A and B?

Now’s the time to think about the journey to your chosen point B from point A. What are the options? It might seem like there’s only one route but try and think of at least one more. 

For now, pick one of these routes. You can always consider the other options later. 

4. What are the nuggets they’ll need to pick up on the way?

Thinking about the route you’ve chosen,  what are the science nuggets they’ll need to pick up on their journey? What are the new pieces of information they need to learn, understand, and deploy at the right time? Are there gene/molecule names they need? Or a brand-new biological concept? Or new information appended to an old idea?

Don’t just think about how many there are. Think about how they are being used on the journey.

For example, it could be a linear progression – you need to understand X to understand Y. Or it could be more complex – you need to combine X and Y to understand Z. The latter requires more effort.

5. Reduce the nuggets

Remember that the fewer the nuggets, the easier the journey will be from A to B for your audience. Now think about how you might reduce the amount of new information they’ll need to learn to understand the project. 

 A few tips:

  • Cut it back to what they need to know, not what ‘it might be nice’ for them to know. For example, is it really essential to explain the function of that particular protein, or could you get away without it?
    Purists may find this sacrilegious. “But of course I need to explain what p53 does!”, they’ll say, “it’s one of the most important proteins in cancer biology! I learnt everything about it during my degree!”. But remember: they’re not taking an exam in this afterwards. They’ve got the whole of their lives to learn more if they want to. Chill out. 
  • Think about the order of your nuggets. Would explaining X after Y make it a bit easier?
  • Could you do away with a nugget entirely? Do you need to even mention that gene, or that concept? 

One way to do this is just to give it a go: try explaining the project without mentioning one of the nuggets. If it still makes sense and gets your audience from A to B, then that’s a sign that nugget isn’t essential. Get rid. 

6. Re-evaluate and adjust

You’ll be getting a good sense now whether the route you chose is easy or not.

How does the route between A and B seem now? Are there any gaps, or big leaps they need to make? Would a different route be better?

You could also think about your start and endpoints.

  • Is your Point B right? Would it be easier to head towards a different (but equally valid and rewarding) destination?
  • Is your Point A right? Have you assumed too little or too much knowledge? If you attacked this trek from a different starting point, would it make it easier? 

7. Repeat as necessary

You can repeat the above steps as often as you like until you have something you’re happy with. Congratulations!

8. Review at a later date

You might find that over time, it becomes obvious that your explanation isn’t good enough. Maybe someone else has explained this project better than you. That’s ok. Review and adjust as necessary, and go through the steps above if needed. 

This method might seem complicated at first, but it becomes second nature once you practise it over and over again. Remember that your goal is not to make the journey short at all costs – it’s to make it easy. The distinction could be the difference between leaving your charity’s supporters confused, and leaving them wanting to learn more about the work they’ve made possible.

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