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Ready, set, speak!  Tips for effectively communicating your science with public audiences

About the author – Dr. Allison Coffin is Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver studying acoustic communication and hearing loss. Over the past 10 years she’s taught communication workshops to a variety of scientific and professional audiences and was the Audience Choice winner at the 2014 U.S. FameLab Finals, a science communication competition hosted by NASA and National Geographic.  She runs the science communication website communicatalyst.com and am a long-time member (junkie?) of Toastmasters International.

Why communicate your science?

You’re a scientist doing important and interesting work in conservation biology, right? You probably publish your research in reputable journals and give departmental seminars, but these reach a limited (and self-selected!) audience. Do you want your research to have a broader impact?  Head the call of recent editorials by Chris Parsons and Andrew Wright, and learn to advocate for your science – get out and communicate!

Between online forums, public scientific discussions such as Science Cafés, and interactions with the 24-hr media cycle, there are more venues than ever for us to communicate our science to lay audiences. However, being willing to communicate isn’t enough. To quote a recent JCom article by van der Wurff and colleagues, “Scientists…supposedly aim for a serious and scientific style in which complex matters are unraveled and accurately explained, remaining uncertainties acknowledged, and ideas not too quickly taken for granted.” Does this sound familiar?  For many scientists, our natural inclination (or perhaps, our training) makes it difficult to step out of this “information transfer” mode to connect with our audience.  At its heart, communication is about connection.  How can scientists connect with lay audiences, so that our message is both heard and received? This article is for all scientists who want to speak to the public, advocate for their science, and build their skills so that they can connect effectively.

Know your audience

Just as there is no single scientific discipline, there is no single “public” – we may want to reach politicians and other decision makers, funding advocacy groups, or high school students. I’ve personally spoken to a range of diverse audiences through the years, including high school science classes, citizen groups, and at Science Café -style venues. Each group has a different level of knowledge, and each group often wants or expects something different from the scientist.  High school students often want to know our personal stories – how did we get where we are, and what excites us about our research? Decision makers often have very different questions; they want the bottom line of how our findings can be applied to policy issues.

Despite these differences, each audience has one thing in common – they are all human. Humans are essentially selfish creatures, and the main thing most people want to know is WIIFM – “What’s in it for me?”  As a speaker, our first task is to know our audience and determine what they want to know about our topic; why are they meeting with us or attending our talk?  Once we know their WIIFM, we can determine how best to frame our message.

Principles of effective communication

While each audience is different, we can apply four common principles to effective outreach communication.

  1. Tell a story! Modern audiences expect entertainment, not just information. Every set of experiments, and every scientist, has a story to tell; science is done by people! Each talk should tell a story, or several short stories, with a single message at the heart of the talk. The best stories connect with our audience on multiple levels.  In Don’t Be Such a Scientist, marine biologist-turned-film director Randy Olson gives us the “four organ theory” of connection: stories reach the broadest audience if they connect with the brain (facts), the heart (sincerity and passion), the gut (humor), and the lower organs (sex appeal).  For most scientists, we’re most comfortable in the head – we love to think and reason, and we often think logic is all that matters. Dr. Stephanie Hampton, the director of the Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach at Washington State University, exemplifies storytelling in her talks about the effects of climate change on Lake Baikal in Siberia. She frames her talk with a story about three generations of Russian scientists who faced political upheaval to collect a 60-year time series on water parameters in Lake Baikal. Dr. Hampton weaves the scientific content into the story, seamlessly merging the personal with the science.  By sharing the emotional story of the scientific family behind the data, she connects with the heart as well as the head.
  1. Drop the jargon. Effective communicators don’t need complicated words. To quote Kevin McCormick from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, “Just because you’re simplifying it doesn’t mean you’re dumbing it down. You’re just making it accessible.” (the-scientist.com) Every field has jargon, and when we use it we build a wall between our audience and our goal of effective communication.  Just like I don’t know all of the jargon associated with the stock trade (no insider trading here!), I don’t expect a stockbroker to recognize the importance of a keystone species. Jargon makes it hard enough to communicate with scientists from other disciplines, let alone with a diverse non-scientific audience.
  1. Reduce uncertainty. As communicators, it is our job to speak the language of our audience and to communicate our certainty. In science, we’re trained to talk about hypotheses, or, if we’re really sure about something, theories. We have many theories, such as the theory of evolution, germ theory, and climate change theory, because a scientific theory is a “well-tested explanation that unifies a broad range of observations” (Miller and Levine 2007). As scientists, we understand that “evolutionary theory” is an incredibly well supported explanation for how all life on earth is related and how life has changed over time, incorporating facts from biology, chemistry, geology, and other diverse fields. However, “theory” often means something distinctly different to a non-scientist, ranging from a hypothesis to a simple guess. In fact, opponents of teaching evolution have fought to include the words “the scientific theory of” in education standards, as if those words somehow make evolution less powerful (Branch and Mead 2008). No wonder the public gets confused.

    Let me be clear. I’m not saying we should over-sell our results, or even worse, lie about our data. Rather, I think we should confidently lay out our argument and state our main conclusions, then let the audience lead the discussion to a more nuanced understanding…or not.  It’s up to the audience what to take away, but it’s up to us to make our message both accurate and accessible.

  1. Get excited! Chances are, you started your scientific career because you were excited about black holes, or volcanoes, or for me, sharks. If you’re still conducting research, hopefully you are still excited about your science. I get all tingly when a student brings me interesting new data. When we speak to the public (or our colleagues), let that excitement shine!

We convey our passion in the way we deliver a presentation; the eye contact, voice inflection, pace, and body language that together comprise non-verbal elements of communication. Want to emphasize something?  Slow down, and pause before saying it.  Or speed up, letting rate and pitch convey excitement, then pause, to let the idea sink in. In Dazzle ‘em with Style, Dr. Robert Anholt reminds us that, “delivery, not content, often makes a lasting impression.” If we want our audience to remember the content, we need to deliver that content with enthusiasm.

Conclusion

Ready to try your hand at science communication? There are several venues looking for competent and willing speakers.  The Science Café model is popular in recent years, with many cities hosting their own variation.  These talks are usually informal and often coincide with drinks, helping both the presenter and the audience to relax.

Intrigued, but not yet ready to jump in?  You’re not alone.  Social science research shows that many scientists are reluctant to venture forth into public communication of science (Davies 2008).  The good news is that most scientists change their tune once they try it, so the rewards are tangible for those that pursue science communication.  Even better news is that professional help is available in a variety of flavors.

  1. At Stony Brook University, the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science offers a several courses and workshops, including sessions on improvisation skills (think Second City for scientists) and working with the media.
  2. COMPASS workshops and training also cover a variety of skills, from writing for a lay audience to working with policy makers.
  3. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conducts personalized workshops through their Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology.
  4. For general public speaking training, Toastmasters International is a great option, with clubs in 126 countries, each one dedicated to helping members improve their communication and leadership skills. I credit my speaking success to my own Toastmasters experience, and with my willingness to make myself vulnerable by reaching out to public audiences.

“Poor communications cause immediate danger if they keep people from using available science knowledge” (Schuefele 2013). Let’s mitigate this danger by communicating our science clearly, effectively, and with passion!