AAAS Webinar Offers Science Communication Advice

This photo shows the four panelists and moderator seated at a table with a "Science AAAS Webinar Series" sign on it.
From left to right: Sean Sanders, Laura Lindenfeld. Alexia Youknovsky, Matthew Savoca, and Laura Helmuth discuss science communication.

Four perspectives on communicating science were brought together in a May 29 webinar, “Selling without selling out: How to communicate your science,” hosted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and moderated by Science senior editor Sean Sanders.

Sharing their expertise were

  • Alexia Youknovsky, from the science communication agency Agent Majeur in Paris, France;
  • Laura Helmuth, health, science, and environment editor at The Washington Post;
  • Matthew Savoca, post-doctoral researcher at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University; and
  • Laura Lindenfeld, director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

Identifying your message is a key component of communication, the panelists agreed. Youknovsky said that when she’s working with scientists, the first thing she asks them to do is to start with a clear message and then to build everything around that. Helmuth commented that much of her work as an editor is to help both scientists and reporters select and refine messages. Reporters and editors have word limits on their stories, she added, so they will “distill the message” out of necessity. If scientists can distill before they talk to a reporter, it helps the news media do their job well.

Savoca pointed out that being simple—clear and direct—is very different from being simplistic, a point Lindenfeld expanded upon later by expressing her dislike for the phrase “dumbing it down.” Both made the point that it’s very possible to be both clear and accurate. Don’t try to cram in too much, Savoca advised, and added that you risk your audience getting no message at all when you flood them with details.

Simplifying without being simplistic can be challenging, so the panelists had advice. Savoca suggested practicing with people who don’t know your work and soliciting their help in identifying useful analogies and metaphors. He also suggested asking, what is the one key thing you want to communicate? Helmuth said that looking at children’s science magazines for ideas can be helpful, and that seeing yourself as a consumer of information and learning from that is also useful. Ask yourself what makes things clearer and more engaging when you’re reading the work of others. Youknovsky advised asking how your work affects people today, next year, or ten years from now and what impact it will have. And Lindenfeld recommended Nancy Baron’s “message box” for organizing ideas and distilling one’s message.

Identifying your audience is also essential to effective science communication. Journalists need to know your key finding right away, Savoca pointed out, while an audience of scientist colleagues want to know details about your methods and data. In his blog, he assumes his audience is people with a high school or college education, with some or perhaps no science background. Youknovsky said that she asks the scientists with whom she works to answer specific questions about audience members: What are they motivated by? What are they interested in? She also pointed out that we all like to feel smart, make connections, and learn new things, and in science communication it is the scientist’s responsibility to facilitate that. Lindenfeld commented that the theatre improvisation approach used by the Alda Center (and by the CCS) helps people see the world from another’s perspective and recommended looking at available research about audiences—for example, surveys show that most Americans trust scientists.

A focus on interactions with journalists included the following advice:

  • get to know the public information officers at your university or institute;
  • think about questions you might be asked and prepare answers ahead of time;
  • be generous with your time and respectful of the reporter’s time;
  • when a reporter calls and asks you to comment on another person’s work, what’s usually wanted is some further explanation and context for the work, not a critique;
  • you can answer a question that has not been asked;
  • be aware that journalists don’t work on a semester timeline or a grant cycle but daily deadlines;
  • build relationships with reporters and editors; and
  • email a reporter or an editor if you have something to contribute to a timely topic or if you have exciting findings that are about to appear.

Special tip: Laura Helmuth put out a call to webinar watchers, saying she’d love to have them “leak” to her–especially if they’re whistle blowers.

Communicating effectively is work, the panelists agreed. Like any skill, it takes time, practice, and more practice. Savoca noted that in all his years of undergraduate and graduate education he had been required to take only a single course that helped him learn to communicate, an undergraduate speech class. Lindenfeld described how the theatre improv approach used at the Alda Center helps communicators “keep on your toes, celebrate failure, move on, and embrace risk” and described the scaffolded learning experiences offered by the Center. Youknovsky said that her agency offers a variety of training opportunities, including a 3-step method for improving public speaking, a “quite logical” sequence that she finds appeals to scientists.

Sanders asked panelists how they handle the fact that scientists, in general, don’t issue absolutes but are very aware of uncertainty. Savoca urged scientists to embrace uncertainty in their communication, to explain evidence and uncertainty, and to describe how evidence can be used to make decisions. Helmuth agreed, suggesting that it is very respectful of audiences to take the attitude that “uncertainty is a feature, not a bug” of science and to explain it. Lindenfeld said that authenticity and accuracy are very important in communicating—but also pointed out that competing voices can be very strong and should not be allowed to drown out messages from scientists. Youknovsky advocated for listening, opening dialog, and considering the opinions and beliefs of others, noting that genuine two-way communication benefits scientists.

With many more “channels” for communication now available, panelists had comments on some of them. Youknovsky pointed out that a strong social media presence not only allows a scientist to build a community of followers, but also to learn from that community. Helmuth suggested following some journalists on Twitter to find out what they’re interested in and how they think about the world. And Lindenfeld defended “good old-fashioned face-to-face communication,” urging researchers to use their churches, the soccer field, a walk on the beach, and other places to both talk and listen, helping to bridge the gap between scientists and non-scientists.

When offered the chance to leave listeners with a last message, Helmuth said to be aware that you never know who you’re reaching and not to get discouraged. Savoca commented that journalists are wonderful, curious, and wonderfully curious and urged listeners to contact them to offer story ideas. Youknovsky noted that communicating about one’s research is a great way to build community. Lastly, Lindenfeld said that she wanted scientists to know that they are better communicators than they give themselves credit for, and that the world is hungry to hear their stories.

The webinar is available online. Agent Majeur, panelist Youknovsky’s home organization, posted a blog that summarizes the webinar in another form:

The Center for Communicating Science at Virginia Tech offers a graduate course and workshops that help researchers learn and practice the tips offered here. Contact us if you’re interested!

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