The Art of Science Communication
The Art of Science Communication
Next week I am going to attempt to combine two of my favourite past-times, science and writing. I am presenting some of my PhD work and blogging on behalf of the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) from the Experimental Biology Conference in San Diego.
This post is designed to start a discussion about science communication and will be discussed further at the ASBMB ‘Tweet and Meet’ at EB2012.
Just a note about me. I am a PhD student in Medical sciences and I am by no-means an expert in science communication. I started my venture into the ‘field’ by scouring the Internet to see what everyone else was doing and attending events that I came across in my city. Since then, I have been involved in a number of different events, launched a science magazine and picked up a few tips and made my own decisions about what I thought was good, bad and just a big waste of time in the science communication field. So these are some of my tips and things I have picked up along the way…
Starting a science communication project
I think the most important thing to decide, before you even think about step outside of your office, is to work out why you are doing the project and to whom you are trying to communicate with. The temptation is to just jump in and work it out as you go along, but that can be an incredible waste of time and effort.
Deciding on an audience and message can help you define how you go about getting your message across. If you are looking to talk to students or others in a similar field you will adopt a very different strategy to if you wanted to talk to ‘the public’. Remember that the audience are more important than you and communicating isn’t about boosting your credentials (although if done right, it can); it’s about communicating to and engaging an audience.
Talking to others who have interacted with the group you are targeting can give you a handy heads-up as to what works with that audience. Just like you might ask a Professor for help if you were going to present scientific findings at a conference or meeting.
The last thing, practice, and ask others what they think of the idea!
Interacting with an audience
If you are talking to a general interest audience, if you can, add a bit of personality to your message. I find it is best to make the topic personal, give it a face and don’t hide behind a lab coat and the ‘scientist’ persona. Let everyone know you are a person by talking about yourself, your interests, triumphs and disasters.
Keeping an audience can also be difficult, simple interactive demonstrations can help keep an audience engaged. Demonstrations do not have to be dramatic or explosive, they can be as simple as some food flavouring in a blown up balloon to demonstrate a semi-permeable membrane. Adding your own personal frustrations and an idea of how long it took (don’t get too angry though!) can add an extra dimension to a talk. You can talk about failures and discuss how they might have led to further developments. One thing I would avoid is bringing in any institution or personal politics into any communication.
Power-point slides are not always necessary, step out of your comfort zone and test alternative ways of presenting work or ideas. Attending or finding out about other science communication events, and events outside of the science field might provide some inspiration.
Interacting with the media
Sometimes you might not have a choice in your audience, or it might me less defined. If asked to do a radio or T.V. interview for example you might not be 100% sure who is listening or what is expected.
What you can do before the interview is pick out the key messages you want to get across, write these down and make sure they are crystal clear in your head before the interview. Make sure you get them across in regardless of the questions asked in the interview, think like a Politian and turn the questions round to what you want to talk about.
Don’t worry about making mistakes either, if the recording is not live you can always ask to re-do a question or ask them to cut out a section if something you said was incorrect.
If being interviewed for an article, then you can adopt the same strategy. The control is given over to the writer or editor though, and you can’t control what is actually published. However, I believe it is far better to offer a comment or interview on a topic if you are comfortable in your knowledge, otherwise comments from other sources may appear, which may not be correct.
Tools and People
There are many resources and people that can help you get involved with science communication.
You can find science communicators on Twitter (search for #scicomm ). If you are unsure how to use Twitter, try this guide
Research Societies usually offer help and support, so check out their websites
A bit about me
I’m Heather Doran, I have been the Editor of Au Science magazine for the past 12 months. That is my night time and weekend activity. During the day I am a PhD student in Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen. Find me on twitter @hapsci
I would welcome anyone to share their tips, experiences and resources below.