By Ben Clemens and Patrick Cooney
(The following has been adapted from two articles written by Ben Clemens for the Oregon Chapter of the American Fisheries Society’s spring 2020 newsletter.)
Communication is arguably the lifeblood of science.
As a scientist, it is imperative that you explore and practice communicating your science to a broad audience — if you want your science to matter.
Communication is fundamental to daily life. This includes writing and reading literature, and also includes talking talking to people both in-person or on the phone. To be an effective communicator means to successfully partake in a two-way transfer of information. That is, absorbing and understanding information well, and articulating and writing well.
We provide 9 inter-related tips for how to effectively communicate science to the any audience through oral presentations. These include:
- Understand your audience and their language
- Provide the proper amount of information
- Work within time constraints
- Allow questions and dialogue
- Provide perspective
- Analogize the familiar with the new
- Invite the audience into your journey
- Repeat your message
- Practice and training
Without further ado, here are 9 tips:
1: Hello, audience. Nice to meet you!
The best way to transfer information from you, the scientist, to your audience is to adapt your style of communication to the social expectations of the audience.
Here are three food analogies to scientific communication styles:
- Pancake: shallow and wide
- Carrot: narrow and deep; and
- Onion: complex, with layers
- Assumes a general shared and established knowledge base.
- Employs a succinct and wide-ranging debrief to manager / legislator.
- Overall communication style: shallow and wide — like a pancake!
- Assumes a specific and established knowledge base.
- Employs specific and detailed discussions with peers.
- Overall communication style: narrow and deep — like a carrot!
- Assumes a diverse knowledge base, from neophytes to experts.
- Employs flexibility and adaptability, based upon particular public audience.
- Overall communication style: adapts and flexes between pancake and carrot communication styles to address complex layers (like an onion) of a particular topic to a particular audience.
2: Balancing the scale
How does one articulate complex topics in a compelling way that doesn’t sacrifice accuracy and precision…and that the public can absorb (while avoiding overload)? Imagine balancing a scale for effective communication: one side of the scale represents the scientific domain; the other side the social. To successfully communicate, imagine balancing both sides of the scale by providing the proper amount scientific information — not too much (don’t saturate the audience), and not too little (don’t undermine yourself).
What is too much? Scientists typically create imbalance by giving too much scientific information, thus overloading the audience with detail.
What is too little? Scientists can imbalance the scale by not providing sufficient scientific information or specific framing to empower the audience to grasp the topic.
The balance is often found by engaging the audience with a little humor, relating the information to something they are passionate about, and ultimately, presenting the information in a way that they would consider sharing with others.
The scale can also become imbalanced when scientists use too many qualifying statements that can result in audiences tuning out. To be precise and accurate, scientists are trained to provide caveats about their results and to admit what they do not know. However, saying “We need more data” or “I don’t know”, and similar statements too often result in non-scientists tuning out and losing confidence in the scientists.
We are not advocating obfuscation! We are suggesting replacing qualifying statements with hypotheses to keep the dialogue alive. This can provide context for the audience, and help them to understand the complexity of a scientific outcome, given alternative circumstances.
3: Work within time constraints
The ability to effectively communicate can be lost if you let the clock run out. Ultimately, there is a tug-of-war between the amounts of information you could share vs. the attention span of humans. The quantity of information we encounter continues to rise exponentially to unprecedented levels, whereas human attention spans are declining (e.g., Carr 2010). Tailor the length of your message to the attention span of the audience and leave time for questions! This also allows the audience to engage (and therefore to begin processing your information).
4: Questions and dialogue
Allow the audience to ask questions so that they may clarify their understanding and better focus the information to their needs. You can even ask the audience questions! Engaging audiences in a two-way dialogue can be extremely helpful, and, in many situations, this may be more advisable than a one-way lecture! (Particularly if you need to use “pancake” or “onion” communication styles).
5: Provide perspective
We’re familiar with the cliché, “Don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees”, which is really a reminder to keep perspective. Another way to say this is: “don’t use carrot style communication when a pancake or onion will be more effective”. Understand your take-home message and only go into the details that are necessary to shape that message. By providing captivating information on a forest as a whole, rather than the specific details about a specific tree, the audience is more likely to see your larger message. Consider practicing a refined, salient, cohesive, and concise communication style that repeats and diversifies a core message. Sticking to a simple message can provide clarity and avoid overwhelming the audience.
6: Analogous characters
Don’t be afraid to relate a topic to something that a majority of an audience would know. Storytelling and analogies are excellent ways to deliver a message. Just like above, where communication styles were compared to types of food (pancakes, carrots, and onions), analogies have a strong impact in helping people rapidly grasp new concepts while also giving them an association that aids in long term memory retention.
7: Invite the audience to be an explorer on your journey
Remember that science is about the exploration of the unknown. Let the audience partake in that exploration. Ask questions to the audience that allows them to contribute what they know about the topic. Additionally, let them connect dots prior to revealing answers so that self-discovery develops into a memorable and meaningful exchange of information.
8: I’ll say it again
Repetition allows the brain to better understand the message. You have probably heard the old statement about how to craft an essay: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.” This concept works because stating the message at the start of your communication provides context and direction, restating in the middle reminds the audience of the purpose of the conversation, and finishing with the message allows them an anchor point so that they can mentally wrap the message up for future use and unpacking.
9: Practice and training
Communication is an important subset of human dimensions, including sociology, psychology, economics, etc. However, many of us scientists are not trained in human dimensions. Therefore, scientists could gain by engaging with professionals trained in human dimensions. Additionally, take every moment you can to practice your communication skills and share your scientific message!
Making your science matter
As mentioned, communication is arguably the lifeblood of science. Therefore, as a scientist, it is imperative that you explore and practice communicating your science to a broad audience…that is, if you want your science to matter.
Reference: Carr, N. 2010. The shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York.