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Communicating Your Research: How to Write a Lay Summary

By: Emily Ortman, PhRMA Foundation Head of Communications August 29, 2022

Learn five tips on how to write a research summary for a non-scientist audience.

Although researchers are increasingly embracing the idea of communicating their work to the public, many do not have adequate opportunities to receive training in science communications.

In my career I’ve worked at the Society for Neuroscience, the Society for Women’s Health Research and now at the PhRMA Foundation helping researchers broadly communicate about their work and how to maximize their impact beyond the bench. I recently trained the PhRMA Foundation’s 2022 fellowship and grant recipients on how to write a lay summary, a research description that uses clear, plain language for a public audience.

Here are five tips on how to write a lay summary:

1. Know Your Audience

The key to any successful communication – regardless of format – is to know who you are talking to and what they care about. You should tailor your messages and your language based on your audience. For instance, when you are writing a manuscript for a scientific journal, you’re going to talk about research differently than when you are telling a family member about your work. For a lay summary, the audience could include patients and caregivers, policymakers, media, and researchers not in your field.

2. Explain Why They Should Care

A compelling lay summary should explain the problem the research is trying to solve and why the average person should care about the solution. When communicating to the public, it’s critical to make a human connection. One way to do this is by linking the research back to the patient. Tell your audience the “so what?” — what are the implications of this research for patients, for policymaking, and for society broadly?

3. Keep It Short and Engaging

Don’t get too in the weeds when describing your research methods. Keep your summary high level. You should also write as you would speak, using active voice. Think of your lay summary like a TED talk about your research. Keep your language punchy, clear, and colorful. Tip: I recommend avoiding semicolons. Often when people use semicolons, it means they are writing in unnecessarily long sentences.

4. Avoid Jargon

Often there are technical terms that are essential to describing research. However, when writing for a public audience, you should use technical terms only when absolutely necessary. When you must use such terms, be sure to define them using simple language. In addition, acronyms should be used sparingly and must be spelled out on first reference.

5. Get Feedback

Before you share your lay summary with someone else, read it aloud to yourself. Then, ask a friend or family member who is not in your field to read your lay summary. Ask them whether they understood the purpose of your research and the words you used to describe it. Use their feedback to improve your summary. Note: Your university’s communications, media or press office likely has staff members and resources that can help you with communicating your science to the public.

Communicating your research to the public benefits both you and society. Broadly disseminating your work can help you gain recognition, secure more funding, and find new collaborators, while also building public trust in science and providing valuable knowledge for personal and policy decision-making. Finally, it can be fun and personally gratifying to share your research with others.