by Meghan Beamish
Science communication is like sex: at first, when you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be pretty terrible for both parties. But, as you do it more and more, you get better and better at it.
This was the slightly risque, but fairly apt metaphor that Claire Martin left us with at a seminar organized by TerreWEB, a program here at UBC that trains graduate students in communicating their studies to a wider audience. Claire is an on-air meteorologist for CBC, but she is no ordinary meteorologist. She has won numerous awards and recognition for her engaging and successful exploits in the world of science communication. Last Friday, she shared with us “How to communicate science and not bore your audience to death.”
Bore us she did not. Claire presented some very useful things to think about when we are communicating science — to any audience.
Something that really stood out to me from the beginning was that “really good communication doesn’t come perfectly packaged.” That is to say, there is no one best way to communicate. It varies from person to person and audience to audience. But there are key components to successful science communication.
Throughout the talk, Claire referred to an imaginary mind map which shows the key components of science communication. It looked a little like this:
The science component is self-explanatory, but absolutely essential. You must know your stuff. She opened with this phrase, so that if any of us fell asleep or walked out, we still knew that we need to know our science. If you stop reading this post here, remember: know what you are talking about, and know it well! And for those times that you are wrong (and we all have them) own up to it. It makes you personable and keeps you reputable.
The second most important thing that Claire emphasized is to know your audience. This falls under that Social Science bubble. How we engage with an audience – the way we talk, the questions that we ask, the angle from which we approach the topic – should vary from audience to audience. Claire “profiled” us as she was presenting, and from the number of smiles and nods, I’d say that she was pretty dead on. Whenever you are preparing to present, take a minute and think about your audience. Where are they coming from? Start with a broad sketch and then narrow it down.
And, like Claire emphasized in her closing metaphor, the more thoughtfully you profile, the better and easier engaging with different audiences will become. She talked about the importance of talking to challenging audiences, including places where you and your views may not be wanted. This really resonated with me. If we keep communicating within our comfort zones, then it will be impossible to share important messages about science outside our tribe. It is often those people outside your tribe who are most important to reach.
Along those lines, Claire provided some good advice for talking to people who don’t really want to listen to you: Listen to them. Tell them that you understand where they are coming from and engage in a real two-way conversation. And, most importantly, know the arguments that you are – and are not – going to win. I hesitate to even use the word argument here, for arguing is not a sign of effective and constructive communication. So, I’ll rephrase: know which subject can be communicated effectively in that situation, and which ones cannot.
Going back to the idea that there is no one style of effective science communication, Claire ended her presentation by showing us two videos. The first was produced by The Weather Network and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science (now the Canadian Climate Forum). The vignette was about climate and the Arctic, and it seamlessly jumped from researcher interview clip to panning across the Arctic tundra. It was sleek, carefully edited, polished, engaging and effective. I couldn’t find the video online, which may be a comment on how well it actually engaged people.
I’ll leave you with the other video, from school teacher Greg Craven. It is not sleek, carefully edited, or polished, but it is brilliantly engaging and effective.