Shouting from the ivory tower: SciComm for beginners

This week, I am tweeting not from my own account, but from the science communication “rocur” (rotating curator) account realsci_DE, the German version of realscientists. This is the latest instance of a few experiences in talking about science and my work as a scientist to a non-expert audience, and I’ve learned a great deal from and about this in the past. So I thought I’d share a few insights that I had along the way (fun fact: there are no natural born communicators, it all needs practice).

First tell me how this helps scientists!

I see two main benefits to science communication, but perhaps there are even more. First, an outside perspective can lead to interesting new questions and insights. Especially the need to step back, change perspective, and make new connections can be extremely useful and help generate new ideas or give you different views on your findings.

Second, science communication actually takes place whenever we talk about our work, the general public is just a special case that we might not be used to that much. The skills honed here can be transferred to teaching, presentations at conferences that are more or less specialized, and conversations with colleagues from different fields. Especially teaching is often something that scientists have to do without much support or training. Simply by virtue of being experts, we are supposed to naturally be able to pass on our skills and knowledge. I’d bet that every single student knows of at least one professor for whom that was not the case. And that might be true if we, the next generation, are thrown into teaching situations without any prior experience. Fortunately, universities are catching up and start offering courses in effective teaching, but why not get a head start and instead of suffering along with the first class you have to teach gain some experience in a less formal, pressured, and stifling context.

So without much further ado, let’s get into some good practices when communicating!

Think about the audience: Why should they care?

Sure, people showed up or clicked or followed you on twitter. You got their attention for a brief moment. Keeping this attention is a different thing altogether. It’s often useful to find an entry point and red line that people who are not in your field can relate to. For me, that’s usually quite easy. I explain how we actually don’t know just how babies learn their native language so quickly, so there is a lot of research needed. That makes people think about language and their experiences, either with small children or with learning a new language. Illustrating the problem is also often useful, my favorite exercise to show how it’s hard to even pick up words from speech is to play or say a few words in a language the audience is very unlikely to know. Even just guessing how many words were said is often quite hard. Try throughout different points to relate what you are working on to some experience they might have had.

Sometimes it can also help thinking about what your results could imply for daily life. I look at how input might affect language development. To illustrate differences in the input, I can talk about playgroups and different types of daycare. Are these experiences helping babies? In some way, this is what I am trying to find out.

Ask yourself: What does the audience know, which words can I use?

I can introduce myself as a psycholinguist, but in my experience only fellow psycholinguists would know what that even means. Cognitive scientist is a bit better, but some confuse that with communication science (for whatever reason, it did happen to me already). Even worse than not knowing words, some words have connotation in “normal” language that are quite different from the meaning they carry when used in science (and actually even across scientific fields, meaning can differ vastly). For example, whenever I say neuro-something, people think I work on brains or with animals, in short it sounds quite invasive to many people. So as a rule it makes sense to avoid jargon, because this way you can be sure that both you and the audience speak the same language.

Check: Which level of detail makes sense?

I could say I study language and how babies learn it or I could describe how my latest study aims to tap into the intersection of phonological and lexical representations in infants. The latter is suitable for a talk at a specialized conference, but it will make a general audience switch off immediately. The same goes for describing your studies. Do you really need to explain how you selected your stimuli? Will it help your audience grasp what you wanted to measure and what you found? It is often better to stick to accessible, general examples. Those are also, as suggested above, easier to link to personal experiences.

If you can, show videos or other examples that illustrate the general concept, but nothing longer than 2 minutes.

A note on pitfalls

Some people come with specific questions or anecdotes and as a rule of thumb, you are not able to answer that question or respond to that anecdote. That’s because we are so very specialized, whereas when we announce a generally clear topic people have all sorts of associations with it. In classical Dunning-Kruger style, I am mostly aware of my ignorance. My strategy is then to tell them what I know and point to further resources or admit my ignorance if I don’t have any. It’s exactly such situations, however, that might turn out very inspiring, after the first moment where you have to get over your ignorance, of course.

Now, good luck communicating.


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