Updated: May 8, 2020
I recently attended ComSciCon-AIP, a science communication conference for graduate students run by graduate students at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland. Over the course of two days, I along with over fifty other students from around the country discussed storytelling, science communication, science policy, engaging with the media, and diversity and inclusion efforts. While there is too much to share in a single article, I’ve created a list of my top eight takeaways from the conference.
1. Communication should be in the form of stories
Humans love to tell stories. We’ve been telling them for thousands of years. Yet, when we talk about science, we often present our science as though we were reading it from a report. Instead, we should think about how we can make our science into a story. For example, try starting a talk with a historical anecdote or something related to your life instead of jumping into the scientific literature.
2. Know your audience
The stories you tell will depend on your audience as you need to tell a story your audience can relate to. I’m sure we can all remember a movie or book we just couldn’t get into because the story didn’t resonate with us. The same thing can happen when talking about science. When telling your story, remember that you aren’t “dumbing” down the science when explaining your work to a non-scientist, you are translating it into a language they can understand.
When interacting with policymakers, the same principles apply. Each governmental agency or representative has a specific area they are devoted to or are responsible for. For example, if you have a concern about the amount of the federal budget devoted to science, you need to talk to someone on the appropriations committee since they are the ones who have control over the budget. If you aren’t talking to the right people, you aren’t going to accomplish your goals.
3. Build trust with your audience
Even though scientists are among the most trusted groups in the United States, the advent of fake news can make it difficult to know what to trust. For your message to resonate, your audience must trust that you are giving the facts and not just giving your ideological viewpoints.
4. Facts don’t change minds
As scientists, we can easily fall into the trap that if we just show others what we know, they will develop the same beliefs we have. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Whether we believe something often depends on how it fits into our beliefs about the world. For example, if you believe vaccines cause autism, simply stating facts isn’t going to change your mind. Instead, the conversation needs to focus around values. To talk to someone who believes vaccines cause autism, you should bring up the underlying values: the parent doesn’t want to harm their child which they believe the vaccine would. You can then bring the science in, saying that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism and instead, vaccines are extremely effective at preventing harmful and even fatal diseases. Keep in mind that your values should not drive your science. Don’t interpret your results based on what you want to see.
5. Get to the point
You may have heard that humans have an attention span less than that of a goldfish. Whether it’s true or not, it expresses the idea that humans do not have infinite attention spans so as a science communicator, you need to think about what you want to say. For a talk or an article, think about the three to five things you want your audience to take away and design your presentation or article around those ideas. If you are meeting with a policy maker, you need to know what your “ask” is: what are you hoping will happen as a result of the meeting.
6. Science Communication on social media requires deliberate effort
While it may seem that the scientists with tens of thousands of followers on Twitter are tweeting whatever comes to mind at the time, they have a strategy for their work. To develop your own social media strategy, think about who you want to reach, what you want to achieve through your social media use, and how you are going to achieve those goals.
7. Effective pitches have a common formula
If you want your science communication work to appear in mainstream media outlets, you are going to need to pitch your work to an editor. To do so, focus on what your take-home messages are, who your audience is, what type of story you want to tell, why your work fits, and why you are the right person to tell the story. Remember that editors receive lots of pitches so yours needs to stand out. Don’t just write a generic pitch that would work for any media outlet.
8. Policy doesn’t only happen in D.C.
It’s easy to assume that any science policy work must happen in Washington D.C. because that’s where the government is located. However, the federal government is only one of the many lawmaking bodies in the United States. Instead of only focusing on D.C., bring the policy “back home.” If a policy affects your community, get the community involved. Attend town hall meetings and write op-eds for your local newspapers.