3 tips for science communications


August 16th, 2012

It’s National Science Week here in Australia. I’m quite fond of science and scientists: I’m married to a scientist; I even studied science once; I dabbled in science communications; I failed to get a Churchill Fellowship to explore science communications; and I love just about anything to do with space exploration. I’m a big fan of science fiction and I’ve been known to read New Scientist¬†at the hairdressers (I bring my own). (Credentials. Tick.)

It dismays me how scientists – so full of passion and creativity – sometimes make the wondrous mundane, and the story of their work stripped of emotion. It’s no surprise to me that many scientists I know have a hobby in the creative arts – music, painting, photography, art. Most scientists I know are also human, with all the emotions that humans possess. They want, just like the rest of us, to love and be loved, for compassion, for connection and for their stories to be heard.

The structures and protocols of science communications provides both a shield and a barrier – a shield from criticism by outsiders, and a barrier to sharing knowledge and meaning. It’s left to the media stars of science communications – like Prof Brian Cox – to do the heavy lifting.

So what about the everyday scientist? The ones spending hours at the bench; the ones analysing mountains of data, how can they share their story, their piece of the puzzle, their contribution (maybe not even with the big wide world, just with friends and family)?

Improvised theatre appears to be the antithesis of science. Science is all controlled and documented, improvised theatre is spontaneous and ephemeral. Yet science is full of spontaneity, surprises, and serendipity. Ask any scientist. And improvised theatre is full of structure. Ask any improviser.

So I’d like to offer these communication tips from improvised theatre to any scientists out there wanting to share their story. And we want to hear your story, your struggle and your delight.

Be average
I know, I know. Science is all about excellence. And yes, it is. But not to the rest of us. We mere mortals have no idea what you’re doing. We don’t know the importance, we don’t know where it will lead. You don’t have to impress us like you might think you have to impress your peers. To us what you are doing is already extraordinary.

Story is not a dirty word
Ever had the advice to just stick to the facts? Don’t embellish, strip out the emotion blah blah blah. It’s all rubbish. Stories, and storytelling, is part of our human DNA. Then I hear things like, “I don’t know where to start, or what to say.” (See be average above). Here’s an approach that’s pretty universal for structuring stories.

1. Establish where and when your story takes place.

2. Describe the normal state of affairs.

3. Tell us what the catalyst for change was – the need, the want, the search for understanding…

4. What happened, and what were the consequences.

5. What happened after that, and what were the consequences.

6. Depending on your story you might repeat this step a number of times.

7. The resolution – what happened in the end (or what do you hope will happen).

8. And finally, how are things different (or will they be different).

In other words, this is known as a Story Spine. In more general terms it looks like this…

1. Once upon a time…

2. Every day…

3. But one day…

4. 5. 6. Because of that…

7. Until finally…

8. And ever since then…

Improvisers use this framework all the time to ‘make up’ stories on the spot. It makes improvisers look much cleverer than they really are! It’s the structure of The Story Spine that is the brilliance.

Colour – Advance
There’s a thing called The Curse of Knowledge. It reminds us, whenever we become an expert at something, that it’s just about impossible to remember what it’s like to be a novice. And when scientists devote their lives to something, like scientific research, they gather LOTS of information. What, then to share, and what to leave out, when communicating? After all, communication is not a solitary activity – it involves someone receiving your message, no matter what medium you use to send it.

Colour – Advance is a really useful way of testing your message. It works really well with someone who is not familiar with your work. You invite them to listen to, or read, something you want to communicate. They can give two instructions only:

1. Colour. This means provide more detail, go to greater depth.

2. Advance. Move the story forward. I want to know what happens next.

Notice what they want more of, and where they want the story to move forward. Adjust accordingly.

Happy Science Week everyone.

1 Comment so far

  1. Links of the week – let there be lights edition « ivry twr on August 27, 2012 4:48 pm

    […] 3 tips for science¬†communications¬†– A good list of tips for crafting engaging writing about science. The beautiful part of this list […]

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