I remember at a job fair once overhearing a group of my fellow classmates in our undergraduate NanoEngineering program expressing their frustration over not being able to describe their budding careers in nanotechnology to recruiters. How do we micro and nanotechnologists explain our work in a way that the rest of the world can understand? Finding a way to do so in a concise, but detailed, manner is a challenge.
In the previous example, the most readily available piece of career fair, and networking, advice at my alma mater was to have a prepared “30 second commercial” to recite – like an entrepreneur’s elevator pitch. Brevity and depth during this exercise may seem at odds and one classmate felt compelled make “tradeoffs” between each.
The question of how to explain micro and nanotechnology to the layperson and keep it short and sweet has come my direction before. My answers are summarized in a brief list of things to do and avoid…
Tell the technology’s purpose first
The most talented describers of micro and nanotechnology whom have had my audience have begun by telling what nanotechnology can do, which justifies why they are interested in it, and why you should hopefully be too. Then they dive into how it works and by what scientific principles it operates from. Intuitively, telling the great things a technology can do first will hold an interested listener’s attention longer.
A winning formula for this is “It is used for….. by doing…..based on …scientific principle.”
So many engineers do the reverse! Once I was once told about a device “that utilizes dielectrophoresis to separate harmful nanomatter due to differences in dipole and Clausius–Mossotti characteristics of the individual particles.” Fortunately I had some familiarity with the concept of dielectrophoresis, which spared me from total confusion. For those who do not, translation please?
Avoid discussing it abstractly
There is a reason students fall asleep during university lecture classes. It is not always that the subject is not stimulating enough. Instead, delivery is not, and may not relate it to something tangible. The point here is this: connect nanotechnology to something others may be familiar with. Think of your least interesting lectures in college. Please do not remind the audience of theirs too.
I cannot put into words how often I have witnessed scientists and engineers make this mistake.
Relate it to real life
One of the easiest ways to bring nanotechnology, or any technical product for that matter, down to planet earth is to compare it with something more familiar. I have heard many creative ways to do so. The best was from a fellow volunteer at a NanoDay exhibit held a at a local science center:
A child asked him “how small is nano?”
His response: “What do you see through a microscope?”
“Now, imagine something so small, that a germ needs a microscope to see it” replied the volunteer.
He was simple and to the point. The child understood him perfectly. Obviously the volunteer was not going to respond with an answer created from information from scientific literature to a child. An adult will appreciate a bit of creativity and effort too.
Don’t be too simplistic
While it may be useful to scrub out some of the tech jargon and replacing the big words, do not overdo it. Explaining technology to the layperson does not mean “dumbing down” the topic, just recasting it into normal language.
Even if unintentional, the “I am the smart one and you know nothing” vibe will turn others off. Recruiters (or potential partners and investors for the entrepreneurial minded) certainly do not want to catch wind of it.
Practice practice practice!
Explaining micro and nanotechnology concisely and comprehensibly is as much an art as it is a science. I cannot stress this more. Do not be ashamed to stumble a few times. Explaining nano-related work in a not-so-technical way takes practice. Give it a try, and try often. It will come more naturally when making the pitch that matters the most.