Commentary | Apr 30, 2018 | By Sumeep Bath, Media and Communications Officer

Science Communication for (Very Smart) Dummies

“You don’t really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” Anon.

In a world where ensuring people believe and act on scientific evidence is becoming even more crucial (while potentially more difficult), good, clear communication is a critical tool to inspire populations, educate decision-makers, and spur real and effective change.

Scientific findings are of little use if they don’t make it to the right people.

Traditionally, science and its communication have been seen as two distinct disciplines, the former to be carried out by scientists and the latter to be handled by professionals trained in communications who act as “science translators” or intermediaries between the science world and the general public.

While that is a great model that certainly still exists for many scientific institutions, many factors (including an evolving job market and dwindling science budgets) have made it a necessity for scientists to start communicating their own work.

Luckily, many institutions have adapted to the new reality and include science communications courses as part of broader scientific programs and the development of young scientists. The University of Otago in New Zealand even offers a PhD in science communication, housed within its own centre dedicated to the cause.

If you’re a scientist who wants to get started on communicating your work to a broader audience—but don’t have three to five years to spare—here are some helpful tips on how you can start reworking your research for a broader audience and find the most effective avenues through which to reach them.

Speak to Your Audience Directly

We can’t talk about scientists communicating with the public directly without mentioning social media. Social media is all about removing barriers and bringing together audiences that would not otherwise meet.

Twitter is a platform built specifically for encouraging conversation, and many scientists from Neil deGrasse Tyson to Chris Hadfield have successfully used it to build online personalities and make science accessible and engaging.  Indeed, trying to fit your missives into the confines of Twitter can be an incredibly useful activity to the aspiring science communicator who is accustomed to denser scientific writing styles and lengths.

You can also take to Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the internet,” where millions of users are waiting to Ask You (that’s right, you) Anything about your area of expertise.

Forget that stuffy image of geeky scientists in white coats sequestered in the lab for days at a time, never even peaking at the sun—we all know that science is a lively, engaging, and fun discipline.

If you prefer more traditional journalistic approaches, take a look at The Conversation. Its tagline “[a]cademic rigor, journalistic flair” sums it up pretty nicely—it’s blog that encourages academics from across the board to submit newspaper-style articles for publication. Quartzy also has a great blog—The Q—that publishes engaging and lively science blogs from academics and academic institutions.

Explain Your Work to an 11-Year-Old

Remember the childhood wonder and excitement that understanding the world through science instilled in you?

There is an increasing understanding that introducing scientific concepts to, and encouraging science literacy in, people at a young age will increase their likelihood of taking an interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) later in life, or of building a career in science and technology.

One of the most obvious ways to build this capacity is to practise with children in your life. When you are next spending time with a young relative, try and explain your work to them and see which approach works best. Do they understand all the words you are using? Do analogies or stories work best to illustrate your ideas? How can you build on what they already know and understand? Does telling jokes work?

Posting photos of yourself out in the field really puts a human face to a discipline that can sometimes come across as rather faceless.

There are also a few existing public channels through which you can flex your communicating-science-to-young-people muscles. American actor Alan Alda has now turned his attention to communicating science, and every year the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science hosts the Flame Challenge, whereby scientists are challenged to explain a scientific concept to an 11-year-old. (For added authenticity, the judges are also 11-year-olds from all across the US.)

Although you may not ever need to explain your work to a child, just going through the process of breaking down your work for one can be an extremely useful exercise in reconsidering how you present your work dependent on your audience’s needs.

Need some more inspiration? WIRED has a great set of videos in which experts explain their work to five different audiences in five levels of difficulty. And yes, one of those audiences is a child.

Make It Fun—and Get Personal…

Forget that stuffy image of geeky scientists in white coats sequestered in the lab for days at a time, never even peaking at the sun—we all know that science is a lively, engaging, and fun discipline.

And key to the success of science communication is instilling that same excitement we have for science in the public.

Injecting a little humour into a video about a scientific concept, such as this video that breaks down sperm competition, can really endear you to an audience. In fact, a scientific study  from a few year ago even proved the role of humour in science communication. And there are always fun online trends (such as #SHOUTYSCICOMM) that allow you to get your point across with a healthy dose of levity.

And don’t be afraid to get personal. That stuffy impression of scientists needn’t exist. We can open the doors to our laboratories and prove that we are human beings with real faces and real stories.

Why not post tales from the field, use the first-person perspective (and personal narratives) to draw readers in to your messages, or show the world that you are interested in more than just science?