and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone.”
- Albert Einstein
- Carl Sagan
- Stephen Hawking
- Richard Feynman
- Alton Brown
- Paul Ehurlich
- William “Bill” Nye
- Stephen Schneider
- Neil deGrasse Tyson
- Alan Alda
These great communicators all found different methods of translating the complex and sometimes esoteric discussions among scientists into accessible forms that attract, entertain and ultimately inform their audiences.
Why is it important to extend our communication beyond peer-reviewed publishing? Why should we be interested in communication our results to the greater public? Beyond securing funding for future work, a higher level of scientific literacy can inform governments and societies to make better decisions to improve lives. On an individual level it can improve ethical decision making. It will also inspire future generations to continue in the steps taken by scientists today.
Now, here to begin when you want to communicate with the public?
First, Identify Your Communication Goal.
Do you want to provide input to a specific decision? Are you interested in fostering public trust? Is it time to go out and secure funding for you work, or do you want to encourage public engagement or use of a concept or technology?
A strong understanding of your own motivation for communication is imperative for creating effective communication.
Second, Select Your Audience.
As scientists, we are often accustomed to having our audience selected for us. So, we tend to present our research to self-selecting groups that are already interested in what we have to say. From seminars and symposiums to classrooms and research groups, these are groups of people who are already primed to hear your message.
Your audience is determined by your communication goal. For example, if your goal is to provide input to, or influence a specific decision, your audience may be the decision makers themselves. It may be their constituents. More general goals, such as fostering public trust may be best aided by “science translators” like educators, community activists or religious groups.
One challenge in communicating beyond these venues is to focus your communication on the audiences that are best positioned to help you reach your communication goals.
Finally, Tailor Your Message.
The methods you use to communicate your message are determined by the audience you have selected.
A common mistake scientists make when communicating with the public is to use the same techniques they use when communicating with specialists in their field. When presenting to other specialists, we tend to start with background information and previous research. We follow this up with supporting details and findings. Finally, we put all of our results and conclusions into the final slides of a PowerPoint presentations and cover them in the last few minutes of our lectures.
The public will generally be turned off by this format of constructive argument. They want to know the big idea right at the beginning. When you are structuring your message for the public, think of it in terms of a newspaper article or television news report. Start off with the headline information that catches the viewer’s attention. Speak directly to your audience’s interests. Follow that with information on why the headline is relevant to the viewer.
Remember WIIFM. “What’s In It For Me” -- the sooner you can address what the audience can get out of your topic, the sooner you can lock down their attention. Finally fill in the supporting details that will help the viewer to understand and believe your points.
Scientists and the public often have different communication styles. While scientists often start by placing research in a historical context, the public wants to know the key point at the beginning.
Consider how you can simplify and streamline your message. Stick to the point. Do not meander. We may be used to interpreting complex formulae and graphs, but the general public is not. Avoid using them whenever possible. It is often more effective to replace them with an image, graphic or simple sketch.
If possible, avoid text all together. We are accustomed to producing slides of text that summarize what the speaker is already relaying in a verbal format. Think instead of the more powerful TED-Talks, dramatic monologues or poetry readings you have witnessed. Often the most effective ones are simply the presence and voice of the speaker overlaid over images and photos that progress on the screen behind them.
Do not use Jargon! Words, acronyms and phrases common to your specialty may be incomprehensible to people outside of your field. Even scientists from different fields may use similar language but with vastly different meanings. Using jargon can cause listeners to gloss over entire sentences and sections of your presentation. Consider saying “breaking open cells” rather than “induce lysis” or microbial reactor rather than MFC and MBFR.
But be careful not to alienate your audience with patronizing language. They are likely just as smart and interested as you are, they are simply not familiar with your specialty.
Speaking ‘to’ your audience is very different from speaking ‘at’ your audience, and far more effective in achieving your communication goal.
Ways to Identify Your Audience
- Reach out to the point of contact or organizer for information and to ask questions about the attendees.
- Conduct an internet search. What types of events has the organization had in the past?
- During an event you can take a quick poll of the audience by asking for a show of hands to get a sense of prior experience or interest in your topic. Turn your presentation into an opportunity for engagement by leaving lots of time for question and answer. Not only does this get your audience thinking and engaged, but it gives you important information about their level of interest, knowledge and experience.
- When working with a reporter, ask them about the story and what kind of information they are looking for. Take a few minutes to read or watch past stories by the reporter to get an idea of their perspective as well as their audience.
- On social media platforms, review content produced or shared by members of your target audience.
Modes of Communication
As scientists, we tend to think that the best argument is argument that is most supported. To the public this is often not the case. Instead, the most effective argument for the general public is the argument that “speaks to them” most. If you want to reach your audience you need to employ modes of communication that are effective in gaining their attention, maintaining it throughout your message and will leave a lasting impression.
Humor in formal presentations, if it is employed at all, is often times relegated to a comic panel at the end of a set of slides. There are much more powerful ways to use humor.
Opening your speech with a quick joke or funny lab anecdote is a way to prime audiences to be more receptive to, and interested in subjects they would probably otherwise ignore. I know from personal experience that a good laugh response from an audience helps me to relax into the presentation, overcoming my public speaking jitters, and lets me deliver more polished and confident speech patterns. Sprinkle your website or presentation with moments that keep the audience engaged or catch them off guard.
Don’t be afraid to let loose your funny bone when communicating your message.
Remember that when you are dealing with people outside of your specialty, or outside of scientific circles altogether, you are often times interacting with people who are less inclined to think critically about your subject. The most articulate, supported and well-crafted arguments may be far less effective at reaching your audience than a simple appeal to their emotions. Some of the longest lasting and effective science messages have appealed not to rational thought, but rather tugged on the heart-strings. This has been used to particular effect with environmental messaging.
Polar Bears have become the unofficial spokes animal for global warming messages. This is not because polar bears are the species most affected by global warming, but rather because they are big, beautiful and charismatic. They provide a fluffy white focus for a much larger and harder to grasp problem. The advantage of using endangered bears as a stand-in for global warming is that while the general public will be motivated to help the bears, most methods geared to help bears will actually be changes that address the larger global warming issue.
There is a reason that Netflix is populated with scripted movies, television and documentaries rather than video feeds from the floor of the US Senate and the lion cage of the local zoo. People are attracted to entertainment that tells a story. Think about the last documentary you watched. Was it a collection of facts and ideas about a particular subject, or did it contain one or more story lines following particular characters (human or otherwise)? In all likelihood it was the latter.
Your scientific message can be told as a narrative as well:
- Humanize your developments.
- Use first names and personal details.
- Tell personal anecdotes.
- Create a story arc – beginning, middle and end; conflict and resolution.
- Create characters with recognizable drives and motivations
Science can be written more like fiction. One of my favorite science titles is “Dolphin Confidential: Confessions of a Field Biologist” by Maddalena Bearzi. Written as a narrative and tracing her own evolution as a woman and a scientist, Bearzi has interwoven her studies of dolphin social structure and intelligence with her message about conservation and her own compelling personal story. Even the title reads like a scintillating personal tell-all.
Working with the Public
You don’t need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to beginning your conversations with the public. Many structures already exist and are waiting for you to take advantage of them.
Museums and Zoos serve as translators to bridge the communication gap. They also come already equipped with an engaged audience that is receptive to new ideas.
Invite groups in to tour your lab and see how research is done. Focus on demystifying science. Make it approachable and exciting.
Don’t forget the importance of school outreach for encouraging the scientists of tomorrow. If campus visits are too time-consuming, consider other ways you can help local teachers. Maybe you have specialized equipment that could allow you to run tests for the class and report back data they could not gain on their own. Do you need extra hands at certain times of the year? Why not bring on high school summer interns to help out when the college students have all returned home for the season.
Artists, brands and businesses all use social media like (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube etc.) to build their personal brand as well as secure the interest and trust of the public. Scientists should too.
These platforms are typically suited to less-in-depth coverage, but can reach a wider audience and lead to more comprehensive communication through traditional websites and blogs.
Multi-media suggestions and items to consider:
- Remember to maintain your credibility as a source when using these platforms; there are a lot of less-authoritative voices out there.
- Identify the institutions you are associated with and always provide your contact information.
- Encourage group members to build your brand through their personal use of social media.
- Mix your messages into outlets not specifically for learning or science
- Give a tour of your lab in video form.
- Supplement blog posts with videos of the lab.
- Compile a series of short clips answering FAQs (use different people in your lab to help build the human component of your story.)
- On webpages, give background information in video form.
- Bring audio/video equipment to events and presentations to record and post later (or stream live.)
- Add a permanent or rotating position in your lab focused on behind-the-scenes video clips for Instagram or Facebook.
- It is easy to add video to PowerPoint presentations– Video can increase interest, show field work or add additional voices of colleagues, assistants or partners in far-flung corners of the globe, (there is that human component again!)
Working with journalists can be a daunting thought, it is hard to control your message when it is filtered through someone else, but they can help you reach a larger audience than you can on your own. They can also raise awareness of a particular topic, and they foster positive attitudes about your work and science in general.
More than ever, scientists are called upon to provide assessments, often to non-scientists, on which management policies are built. Despite this intertwining, your job is to remain apolitical. As a scientist, your role is to be an accessible resource for everyone regardless of ideology, religion or politics. Remain an independent authority who can build trust. It does not serve your purpose to drive away those who most need your knowledge to make policy decisions by being perceived as ideological.
“5 Simple Tips for Communicating Science”
Center for public Engagement with Science & Technology
American Association for the Advancement of Science
“The True Story of the ‘Crying Indian’”