Communication workshop offers new possibilities for connecting with non-scientists
I had the opportunity to attend Connecting the Dots: Effectively Communicating Science to Non-Scientists, which was a two-day conference at George Washington University hosted by Research!America. The Connecting the Dots workshop happened to coincide with a scheduled trip to Washington D.C. where I would be visiting the National Institutes of Health. I was keen to learn more about what Research!America is doing and hopefully hone some of my skills for interacting with non-scientists, particularly in light of the current state of funding, and the sometimes tenuous perceptions of science held by the public. The workshop pulled together a number of necessary competencies for having impactful interactions with non-scientific groups and individuals. Many of the concepts are issues that have surfaced for me at different times depending on what fire was burning at the moment. Over the years, I feel that I’ve developed a ‘sense’ for communicating science to non-scientific audiences, however this has been developed through a great deal of trial and error. Right up front I can say an enormous strength of the workshop is that it brought what seemed to be disparate issues together and linked them conceptually. This approach produced an integrative “package” of skills that will be particularly useful for any scientist who is planning to communicate with non-scientists. There were three main aspects of the workshop that really stood out to me: 1) the curriculum, 2) the faculty, and 3) networking. I’ll expand on each in the following sections.
The curriculum itself spanned a number of topics, and was a good mix of didactic instruction and active-learning exercises. Sessions related to presenting covered topics including structuring and design talks to nonscientific audiences, how to carry one’s self during those talks, working with your institution to optimize your outreach efforts, and dealing with difficult or skeptical audiences. Several aspects of interacting with the media, including insight into what they are looking for when interviewing scientists, were also covered. There was a nice core theme of ‘storytelling’ that helped tie together many of the strategies presented. The “ins” and potential “outs” of using social media for disseminating scientific information to non-scientists were also covered. Again, this pulled together a number of topics that I’ve previously worked on, or looked into, a la carte. Many of these strategies don’t come as second nature to scientists as we’ve been trained to present information in a very formal and structured way. Although there is structure to interaction and presenting with non-scientists, the approach and ultimate goals of those interactions may be wildly different than what most scientists are accustomed to.
By far the exercise that provided the most edutainment value was a mock television interview. In this exercise one of the instructors served as the interviewer for a television show, and one of the attendees acted as the scientist being interviewed in front of a panel of experts (several additional faculty). Without hesitation I can say the woman playing the role of the scientist in this scenario did a fantastic job with the interview, particularly having had approximately 47 seconds to prepare. Although her ability to respond to questions was exceptional, the panel identified several aspects of the interview that could strengthen her position in future interviews that I would not have been cognizant of otherwise. One of the main recommendations was to be aware of an interviewer steering the conversation away from the message that the scientist had come to talk about. The scientist had done such a substantial job handling the questions, that it hadn’t really dawned on me that the interviewer had very swiftly moved them in and out of very different – and on occasion, a bit precarious – domains of questioning. Although I would like to think I could handle that type of situation, I would not have been aware of how quickly one’s message can be redirected without having watched the mock interview. This culminated in a sobering reminder to “beware of the soundbite.”
The program included an outstanding group of experts who had the capacity to employ the techniques they were presenting as they actually gave their lectures. To have experts in rhetoric, communications, media and journalism, academic administration, and science be able to talk about the theory behind their approach, and then give concrete examples of how to implement these strategies, brought the concepts into clear focus. The faculty made it easy to imagine how one could apply these tools when trying to communicate with groups outside of academia.
In terms of the number of people I met for a given amount of time, this was one of the most interactive meetings/workshops I have ever attended. Within the relatively short breaks between sessions and for lunch, I had the opportunity to meet directors and outreach staff of medical institutions, foundations, scientific societies, and non-profit groups. Walking through plenaries and poster sessions at scientific meetings has never resulted in these types of networking opportunities per unit time.
At the end of the workshop, I can honestly say I felt excited to come away with a concrete and integrated plan to put all these pieces together into a coordinated strategy. I can envision myself utilizing these tools in specific situations, and I plan to test, revisit and revise them. The workshop also helped me rekindle the mentality that communicating is an exciting opportunity, as opposed to a "task" that has to be accomplished. I think the workshop provides a fantastic resource that could help reduce the time spent in trial and error for scientists developing their skill sets for communicating science to different audiences. I hope that Research!America intends to continue it and if it is in their scope, and will consider hosting this workshop in various regions of the country.
Paul R. Burghardt, PhD is an Assistant Professor in Department of Nutrition and Food Science at Wayne State University (www.wayne.edu)