How would your mom describe what it is that you do?
The classic version of the “mom talk” is called the “elevator talk”: picture you are riding the elevator and a stranger asks what you do. How do you tell them before the 4th floor? Simplify.
The mom talk is similar, but requires an extra level of simplicity. Instead of having control over which words best describe your work, your description has to be simple enough that the essence of what it is you do can survive a modified game of telephone. What does your mom tell her friends when she brags about you?
Here is an example of a long science-y description, the intentionally simplified elevator talk and the further simplified mom talk. Which is more accessible to you?
Science-y talk: The bottom-up effects of symbiotic, nitrogen-fixing rhizobia alter tritrophic interactions by mediating cyanogenic potential and extrafloral nectar production of the host plant.
Elevator talk: How and when plants defend themselves, and how symbiotic bacteria in root nodules change those defenses.
Mom talk: “Lima bean plant defenses”
One of my favorite mom talks is from Amy Truitt, who studies cytoplasmic incompatibility caused by the microbe Wolbachia in butterfly populations, but describes her research as:
“I study butterfly STDs.”
Another friend, Dave Worth worked on “predatory snails”, when the nerdy title for one of his papers is “Local adaptation along a continuous coastline: prey recruitment drives differentiation in a predatory snail“.
Whether you are a scientist or not, communicating simply can be powerful.