Be that Trusted Smart Friend, Communication Researchers Urge

This image shows a slide from a webinar, a complex diagram of communication goals, tactics, and outcomes.
Dr. John Besley and Dr. Anthony Dudo presented many communication tips in their webinar “Strategic Science Communication.” Image from webinar.

Science communication researchers Dr. John Besley and Dr. Anthony Dudo want scientists to be the trusted “smart friend” that people turn to with questions and problems.

That goal, along with many tips for effective communication, was articulated in “Strategic Science Communication: A Social Scientific Approach to Public Engagement,” a webinar sponsored by the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

Both employed as communicators before getting their PhDs and launching careers as science communication researchers, Besley and Dudo are currently researching the public’s perception of science, how to help the science community communicate effectively to the public, and how to help science communicators connect with other science communicators.

Besley, the Ellis N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations at Michigan State University, studies public opinion about science and scientists’ opinions about the public. Dudo, associate professor in the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations at the University of Texas, is interested in scientists’ public engagement activities and the contributions of informational and entertainment media to public perceptions of science. Both have published extensively in the field of science communication.

To become a better science communicator, Dudo and Besley say it is important to set clear objectives, determine tactics, and be willing to invest time and energy in building trust.

Tip #1: Set Clear Objectives

Besley and Dudo encourage you to set specific goals by asking yourself, “What do you hope will happen from the time, money, and energy you put into communicating?”

They further challenge you to determine the underlying public behavior or perception that you hope to change. Do you want people to donate? Do you want them support or oppose a specific policy? Are you trying to change a specific habit or behavior?

Based on an Association of American Universities (AAU) survey, most researchers are pro-social and want policymakers to use scientific evidence, Dudo and Besley say.

3 Key Tasks as a Strategic Communicator:

  1. Clarify goals.
  2. Keep goals realistic.
  3. Find other people who share your goals—people with whom you can work to accomplish your goals.

Tip #2: Determine Tactics

In determining your tactics—the specifics of how you hope to meet your objectives—you should ask, “Who says or does what to whom in what way through what channel?”

Besley and Dudo encourage researchers to de-jargonize, share stories, and create dialogue. Be mindful of your use of jargon; if you use too much, the information may come across as inaccessible, but if you use too little, you might come across as incompetent, they caution. Storytelling is another tactic that increases engagement by providing a natural and relatable way to convey your motivations. Additionally, creating opportunities for dialogue forces you to think more deeply and critically and allows you to engage with your audience.

3 Key Tasks in Determining Tactics:

  1. Identify strategic choices.
  2. Implement strategic choices.
  3. Evaluate choices to make sure they were truly strategic. Did your tactics give you the results you expected?

Tip #3: Build Trust. Science Communication Is “Slow Food,” Not Fast Food.

Dudo and Besley say you can think of communication as dual processing: 1) quick and automatic thinking and 2) slower and deeper cognitive processes. Most scientists are interested in the second kind of thinking.

Sharing your knowledge is not the only role you can play in science communication. In fact, Besley and Dudo say, “Available research does not support the claim that increasing science literacy will lead to appreciably greater support of science.” While it can be important, that one objective is not enough; often it is simply an invitation to get people in the room. To truly reach your objectives, you’ll need to build trust.

To build relationships of trust with audiences that are important to you—to become that trusted “smart friend,” you’ll need to be willing to invest time and energy. Besley and Dudo think scientists should think of effective communication as similar to the “slow food movement” rather than a fast food hotdog stand at which customers are just picking up bits of knowledge.

Tips for building trust:

  • Be willing to listen as much as you are willing to share; give other people a voice.
  • If you are invited to give a presentation, show up early and stay late to demonstrate your interest in truly engaging as opposed to just sharing your expertise.
  • Make sure you leave time for discussion at the end of your presentation.
  • Provide multiple opportunities and avenues for people to share their views.
  • Think about how the room is set up and whether it supports your objectives. Do you want everyone facing forward? Or sitting at round tables? What physical barriers are there to conversation and discussion?

Following their own advice, Dudo and Besley closed the webinar by answering questions from the audience. A few takeaways include:

  • Don’t be scared away from science communication because you fear the disingenuity of marketing. Disingenuous “advertising” is not equivalent to true science communication.
  • Remember to use your specific skills and talents. For example, you might feel more comfortable talking to kids than adults about science. If that is the case, focus on getting kids excited about science!
  • Be aware of the consequences of your goals and objectives.
  • The communicating science community still has a long way to go in terms of providing skills and tools to researchers. There are few graduate courses and even fewer undergraduate courses.

In conclusion, Besley and Dudo want you to know that cognitive engagement and strategic communication takes time. It takes effort and expertise to link tactics with your objects and goals. Remember, effective communication is slow food, not fast food!

If you’re interested in watching the webinar yourself, you can find it at:

By Sarah Propst, Center for Communicating Science student intern

This entry was posted in News. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.