I’ve been attending several sessions of a workshop yesterday and today that center on the topic of scientific communication. The workshop, hosted by the Wisconsin Institute of Discovery, is called ‘Art of the Conversation’, and addresses the general question: how does someone in a scientific career talk to other people about what they do?
The first session I attended yesterday was ‘Accessibility: Explaining technical information to a lay audience’ with Dr. Jennifer Ashton (senior medical contributor, ABC news), Steve Paulson (host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge‘), and Sharon Dunwoody (professor of journalism and mass communication at UW-Madison).
The three speakers each gave their perspective on techniques to improve the communication of scientific information to the general public. Some of the information was geared more towards scientists who want to explain their work to an interviewer or to the public, and some of it was more appropriate for science writers who want to take that role.
Many of their suggestions were very intuitive, but nonetheless they are issues that many scientists have trouble with (myself included). In any case, it always helps to hear these things repeated. Here is some of what they said:
- Simplicity is key, but avoid ‘dumbing it down’. Avoid using jargon or overly technical language.
- Give examples. Or non-examples. Sometimes something can be better understood by understanding what it isn’t.
- Offer the information in layers, from general to specific, to get at complex ideas. This can also help to ensure that people from a wide variety of backgrounds can learn something.
- Difficulties scientists can run into: getting lost in the details, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, staying too general. Either case can cause people to lose interest.
- To really make their research interesting, scientists should, 1) show why they’re passionate about what they do, and 2) personalize the issue, adding the human factor to the discussion.
- Stories should have a narrative arc: beginning (why should someone care), middle (contains most of the information), and end (tie it in again to why people should care)
As a sort of summary, I think that many of these suggestions fall into two major categories:
- Inspiration – Getting a reader/listener to care about the topic. This is achieved by making information interesting and relevant and telling a story.
- Education – Making it easy to learn about a topic. Once a person is really interested in something, educating them becomes a lot easier, but there are still ways to ensure that they learn as much as possible. Using examples and simple, straightforward language are good ways to do this.