Lessons learned from a workshop on effective science communication

Debra Cooper, Ph.D.

Scientists go through rigorous training to learn skills necessary to perform quality research. We learn to properly create an experiment, analyze the data, and prepare it to be presented. Those data are often presented to other researchers who possess a similar knowledge base and technical lexicon. Unfortunately, little time and effort is devoted to teaching budding scientists how to deliver scientific messages to other audiences: a population larger than those within the academy.

I was fortunate to attend a two-day workshop hosted by Research!America and George Washington University titled “Connecting the Dots: Effectively Communicating Science to Non-Scientists” on April 13 and 14. I believe that a workshop of this sort should be incorporated into every scientific curriculum. Not only should scientists be able to present posters or slides at professional science conferences, but we should also be able to inform policymakers about the implications of science in legislation, or clearly explain our research to media personnel, or even tell our grandmothers the importance of the latest scientific breakthrough. After attending the workshop, I gained a new set of skills to ensure that I can deliver a single message in multiple and unique ways, so that each distinct audience can walk away with an understanding of that message.

There was a wealth of information packed into the two days of the workshop, which I intend to incorporate in all of my communication efforts. I’ve summed up a few of the takeaway phrases that were most salient to me.

PRESENTATIONS ARE A CONVERSATION OF IDEAS

When a message is told as a story, it becomes more interesting and engaging. The story should be told in 3 parts – Act I: the problem; Act II: the action and conflicts; Act III: the solution. A person’s attention span averages 10 minutes, so repeating these three parts throughout a presentation can maintain engagement. Additionally, the story should be relatable. Well-prepared analogies and metaphors to which an audience can relate makes technical concepts more tangible.

DEFINE STRATEGIC COMMUNICATION GOALS

A goal of simply educating your audience is not necessarily sufficient. A more strategic goal can guide communication more effectively. Considering what you want from your audience can improve your message. Examples of strategic goals can be desiring a change in attitude, a change in knowledge, or a change in behavior. These can be slight changes or substantial changes, but any measurable change can reach that strategic goal.

EMBRACE THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Everybody has their own relationship with social media and values it accordingly; whether positive or negative, social media is here to stay. There is no shortage of social media platforms which can be used advantageously to promote your message. As the cliche goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Visuals are more memorable than text, and many social media platforms provide an opportunity to share your message visually. In addition, social media posts that incorporate current events and pop culture can also become more relatable to a broader audience. A crucial piece of advice is to post often and not neglect your accounts (which I am admittedly guilty of).

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE’S AUDIENCE

One of the basic concepts of communicating to non-scientists is to know your audience. However, it’s important to go one step further, and know your audience’s audience. Who is the person you’re communicating with going to talk to afterwards? What are they going to say about your message? Why should they care about your message? These are all important questions to consider before you develop your message. This is especially significant when preparing to talk to the media, as their audience encompasses a large population.

One of the most memorable moments for me happened on the first day of the workshop. I was called down to participate in a mock television interview given by a former CNN correspondent. Fortunately, because I had practically no time to prepare for the ‘interview’, I also didn’t have sufficient time to become as nervous as the situation may have warranted. I was questioned about my background in neuroscience, my current position in science policy, how those are related, and also a curveball about the future of climate change. After the exercise I learned a lot about myself and how I potentially fare in a conversation with the media (I’m quicker on my feet with my responses than I would have expected). More importantly, from the feedback that I received from the panel of media producers and journalists, I learned how important it is to be fully cognizant of the words that I use so that my message is not overshadowed by an unintentional soundbite. I hope to refine all of the skills that I learned throughout the workshop so that when I do find myself in a real television interview (or the next time I talk science with Grandma), I can communicate my story strategically and effectively.

Debra Cooper, Ph.D., is a CCST Science Policy Fellow, California Legislature, Senate Office of Research.

To read a summary of the program, visit http://www.researchamerica.org/news-events/events/research-partners-forums/connecting-dots-effectively-communicating-science-non

 

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If concerted, long-term investments in research are not made, America will lose an entire generation of young scientists.
Brenda Canine, PhD; McLaughlin Research Institute, Montana