Five ideas for better communicating your science

Categories: News

Tags: Science Communication

By Dr Sanna Fowler

As researchers, most of us still report our science in the same old way we’ve done it since school: title, authors, materials and methods, results, conclusions etc….you know the deal. This works for publications and peer-to-peer but are you increasingly being asked to explain what you do to ‘non-experts’?  Maybe you love this aspect of your work, maybe you find it challenging – in any case it requires a very different approach. Here are a few ideas that might help.

1. Ask yourself who your 'end user'?

Everyone will tell you that one of the first rules of communication is “tailor your message to your audience… blah, blah blah…”

I think we can safely assume that you would never consider going into the depths of String Theory with a class of school kids, opting instead to explain things in a way that they’ll understand.  A different way of looking at it is to try and set up a chain reaction, allowing the person you communicate with to then use the information for something. This could be passing it on to someone else, or rethinking their opinion or behaviour for example. Your audience should never be the end user, try giving them the tools to be able to pass the message along.

2. Don't just educate - engage!

One of the biggest mistakes we make as scientists is feeling that our audience needs to understand how things work before we can begin to explain our research. This works fine with an intellectually curious audience but can actually be negative with non-experts – when people don’t understand, they feel stupid and just switch off. There’s a great article over at Slate that goes into more details on this with references to some nice studies if you want to know more, but essentially, ask yourself how much your audience really needs to know to be interested in what you say. Ok, so no schoolroom lectures - how do you really engage your audience?

3. Get personal and make your audience look good

The great American writer John Steinbeck noted rather sceptically “If a story is not about the hearer he/she will not listen.” It’s obviously much easier to talk to an audience on a subject that affects them directly, like a possible cure for Alzheimer’s or how much their water costs them, for example. But Steinbeck was only half right, probably because he lived in an age before social media. We naturally pick up on things that are new/crazy/funny/odd/frightening (delete as appropriate).  So, if you can’t make your research personal, ask yourself if you have something that will surprise or impress people.

CERN is a great example of this – not many of us can see the direct application of the Higgs Boson in our daily lives, but the idea of a 27km underground accelerator filled with superconducting magnets and cooling systems that use as much electricity as a small town is fascinating!

Can you give your audience something that will make them look good at a dinner party or get plenty of likes on social media when they relate what they’ve heard?

The last option is scandal, but unless you’re willing to falsify a few results, get a couple of papers retracted, and ruin your career, this isn’t the recommended option!

4. Pitch your science!

If you’ve ever been to a start-up seed night, you’ll have noticed that there is a pretty standard formula for pitching:

  1. There’s a problem,
  2. I can fix it,
  3. This is how much money I need and it can make you rich.

Ok, so you’re not a start-up but you still have to ‘sell’ your idea. So set the stage, make sure people know what the problem or the question is (and if it affects them directly – see 3 above) and don’t start with your science. Once they’re tuned into the issue, then tell them about how you’re trying to fix/answer it. Leave the money part for later.

5. Use your platforms & take youself out of your comfort zone

Nobody gets good at anything by chance - sure genetics help, but you got your brain didn’t you? Even if you think you’re never going to be the Usain Bolt of the academic world, the old adage about practice goes for science communication too. This means you can’t wait to be asked – get out of your comfort zone and sign up for Science Slams, 3 minute thesis, FameLab, Soapbox Science, local TEDx’s, school’s outreach programmes and many more.

Offer articles for your department’s or university’s websites/blogs/social media and if you’re working for an institution with some kind of central communication unit, make sure they know who you are and when you publish. At first it might be the most frightening thing you’ve ever done but jump out of a plane (with a parachute!) enough times and that stomach-churning fear starts to come with a buzz.

What if none of these platforms exist where you are? Well, maybe you’re just the right person to start one!

This article has first been published by EURAXESS CELAC.


About the author

Originally an ummunologist, Sanna decided shortly after

her PhD at Oxford that the lab bench was probably better off without her. She now works in communication and fundraising at EPFL (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology).


Further information

You may also be interested in the EU Guide to Science Communication - A series of presentations about Science Communication, part of the ESOF16 event. Click here.