Communicating Mathematics to a Broader Audience

How we communicate mathematics is an essential part of making mathematics accessible. You’ve probably experienced communicating with peers and faculty in your area of specialization, taught a few math courses, or even been involved in outreach activities with younger students.  All these types of audiences shape how we communicate mathematical ideas and require different types of skills.  While I consider all of them an important part of our growth as mathematicians, there is still one more type of  audience I want you to consider, the general audience.

Last summer, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) MathFest. Each summer at MathFest one of the largest communities of mathematicians, students, and enthusiasts  comes together to talk about the latest advances in mathematical research and education. One of my most memorable experiences was participating in the session Great Talks for a General Audience: Coached Presentations by Graduate Students. Here graduate students get coached by more experienced communicators on how to make their research accessible to a general audience,  give a 20 minute presentation, and receive individual feedback by an undergraduate student and faculty member. Here I want to highlight some of the insight I gained through this experience.

Ask yourself, who is your audience? Are they kids, young adults, non-mathematicians, scientist, non-scientist, a combination? When addressing an audience you may not know its exact composition. I’ve always thought the best thing to do what to teach my audience my work. Make it accessible by treating it as a student-teacher interaction. However, in the limited time available may be impossible to achieve! Instead, advertise your work. Talk about what drew you to your problem, what are the big ideas, why do you find it interesting?

Less is more. For anyone who has met me, they know when I am excited about an idea I tend to ramble. I used to think my presentations needed to stand on their own.  Every detail I thought was important should be precisely stated in writing. Truth be told, audiences have a limited attention span and a presentation is a tool to highlight ideas. Your use of slides or board space is what brings your talk to life! Make it your story.

Avoid jargon. When you spend a lot of time talking to specialist in your field, it is hard to imagine changing how you talk about your work. However, using layman language is necessary to make your ideas engaging outside of your field. You can use a picture to build ideas. Be generous with using more simple examples that motivate your result. I am sure at many stages of your academic moment you’ve experience that ‘A-ha!’ moment. Give that gift you your audience.

If you’ve found yourself eager to learn more about communicating mathematics, I encourage you to apply to MathFest (deadline April 30) this summer! Below are additional resources:

  1. AMS Communicating Mathematics in the Media: A Guide
  2. MAA Audience Awareness
  3. MAA Mathematical Communication
  4. Steven Strogatz, “Writing  about Math for the Perplexed and the Traumatized”
  5. Follow other math communicators on social media, some examples on Twitter include: Tai-Danae Bradley (@mathma), Dr. Eugenia Cheng (@DrEugeniaCheng), Steven Strogatz (@stevenstrogatz) and  many more!

About Vanessa Rivera-Quinones

I am a fifth-year Ph.D. student in Mathematics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who enjoys teaching, learning applications of math in different disciplines, and making math accessible to everyone. My research interests involve using mathematical models to understand how interactions among hosts, parasites, and the environment shape the spread of disease. Follow me on Twitter: @MissVRiveraQ.
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6 Responses to Communicating Mathematics to a Broader Audience

  1. @mathprofcarrie Diaz Eaton says:

    Nice post! Just a small typo correction for those in the #mtbos: I think Tai-Denise Bradley is @math3ma – just want to make sure everyone can find folks!!

  2. Karen Saxe says:

    Great post and thanks for writing it!

    In addition to writing ABOUT math, there is are great opportunities for mathematicians to write about federal (and other) laws and policies that affect us. For good example, please see: https://risestronger.org/newsroom/op-ed-fy18-october
    If anyone out there would like to write one of these, please feel free to contact me for advice/help; I am the Director of Government Relations for the AMS and you can find me at kxs@ams.org

    The link given above — AMS Communicating Mathematics in the Media: A Guide — has many good examples of op-eds written by mathematicians. Here are two more, recent pieces, that are focused on using mathematics in the policy arena:

    Audrey Malagon
    “Vote auditing can insure integrity of elections”
    The Virginia Pilot, Jan 21, 2018
    https://pilotonline.com/opinion/columnist/guest/article_cbe465f9-6f22-58c6-a050-42b0ea55cb41.html

    Aaron Montgomery
    “In the geometry of gerrymandering, the prettiest voting maps may not be the fairest”
    Cleveland Plain Dealer, Feb 18, 2018
    http://www.cleveland.com/opinion/index.ssf/2018/02/the_geometry_of_gerrymandering.html

  3. admin says:

    This is a comment from Tim McMahon at the AMS at 2:07pm on 20 April 2017. Please let me know when you alerted to this comment. Thank you.

  4. Tim McMahon says:

    admin says:
    April 20, 2018 at 2:11 pm (Edit)
    This is a comment from Tim McMahon at the AMS at 2:11pm on 20 April 2017. Please let me know when you alerted to this comment. Thank you.

    Reply

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