“Don’t blame the ruler.”
Last week, as I listened to Andy Rosenberg, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, give a seminar about the his new Center for Science and Democracy, I tweeted, “What Rosenberg is saying is familiar: science doesn’t tell us what to do, it helps us understand what questions to ask.”
When I hit ‘tweet’ it felt good. It felt right in my bones. And then it hit me. I had just refuted the premise of this blog post.
You’ve just hung up the phone after a call with a Congressional staffer. After a wide-ranging conversation and some probing questions, the staffer invited you to be a witness at a Congressional hearing. You’ve even got the official letter signed by the Chair of the Committee.
Over my three years working here at COMPASS, I’ve come to witness a curious, repeated phenomenon. A significant part of my job involves engaging with scientists through trainings or helping them prepare for conference symposia, policy briefings, or media outreach. For the most part, scientists take on with gusto the task of more effective communication to non-science audiences – diving in headfirst to think outside the box and become better at sharing their research with the wider world. But then…it happens. I see that same scientist who was able to hook in a journalist or get a policymaker to sit up straight in his or her chair, get up in front of his or her scientific peers and again bombard them with fifty shades of n-dimensional graphs.
As we all know (especially as the end of January puts New Year’s resolutions in a new light), old habits are hard to break. However, it is possible to reach a science communication tipping point of sorts. In cases where a scientist has worked with COMPASS in multiple contexts, I often see that rather than using effective communication as a translation filter for certain audiences, they start to THINK in a more clear and concise manner. Even when engaging with their peers, these individuals learn that by starting with the core of their message, their audience has more energy for thoughtful discussion (since less is spent on having to connect the dots). They realize that just because an audience could follow jargon and data dumps, it doesn’t mean it should.
In this spirit, I am often asked how to get started on putting together an effective presentation whether it is for scientific or non-scientific audiences. Below is the advice I have repeated verbally or via email on numerous occasions to those brave souls who are willing to reconsider their slides of scatter plots and 11-point font tables:
- As our own Nancy Baron often says, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.” Rather than approaching your talk by thinking about everything you WANT to include, think about what you NEED to include to get across your core message. Your audience is likely to only remember 2-3 key facts from your talk, so everything you say and show should be in support of those points. The details are the things you want to get people to ask about later.
- Think about what makes things memorable to you: surprising facts, compelling visuals, and (for most people) a great story. Most of the best scientific talks I’ve seen don’t begin with an outline, but instead with an intriguing idea or question that the speaker develops and shares insights about over the next 10-30 minutes.
- Speaking of compelling visuals, here are a few rules of thumb:
- The less text, the better. You want the audience looking at you, not squinting at the screen. And the text you do use should be in easy-to-read fonts and colors at a size appropriate for the venue you will be in.
- If you can use photos or illustrations to make your point, your audience will thank you. Just remember to respect copyrights and give credit as appropriate.
- Do not put up anything you are not going to talk about or that requires the disclaimer “I don’t expect you to be able to read this”. Hopefully you will have a website or publication to point people towards instead.
- If you are going to show graphs, choose only a key few, keep them simple and well labeled, and walk the audience through axes and any necessary caveats BEFORE you interpret the results.
- Take advantage of design resources that are out there. A few good places to start are these books and entertaining video clips from Duarte and Todd Reubold’s Fight the Power(point)! slidedeck. (Got other great resources? Share them in the Comments section!)
- Consider taking advantage of expanding your audience via social media. Encourage people to live-tweet your talk, put your Twitter handle on your title slide, and suggest a hashtag (or be clear if you don’t want your talk live-tweeted). You can also invite questions from Twitter and follow-up on online conversations after your session ends.
In the end, the goal of talking with your peers is often the same as with non-scientific audiences: you want to share ideas, spark conversation, and potentially form new working relationships. So before you head off to your next conference, I encourage you think about preparation in a new way (more help on this front in my previous posts here and here). Think of it as an experiment – you just might be surprised at the results…
“Doors Closing. Please stand clear of the doors.” For anyone who lives, or has spent time in Washington, D.C., you recognize this as the announcement just before the Metro pulls away from the station. The Metro is one of the things I miss most about living in Washington, D.C. Even in a commuter-friendly place like Portland (which I now call home), the bike lanes and MAX simply can’t move as many people to as many destinations with the efficiency of the Metro. The Metro provides something critical to a buzzing, busy city – people-moving infrastructure. [Read more...]
It was past midnight on a moonless night in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Toyota truck jounced along a boulder strewn path in the darkness, astonishing me with what it could take. I was wondering what the two Nile crocodiles in the longbed back were experiencing. We had been up most of the last two nights capturing crocodiles that had wandered out of the Olifants River and belly crawled across the park boundary to take up residence in a tailings pond of a massive open pit phosphorous mine. The mine bosses wanted the crocs gone. These industrial neighbors to South Africa’s most famous park decided it would be better PR to call in park biologists to relocate the giant reptiles rather than shoot them on site.
The question was whether the crocs would settle into their superior home in the park, or try to migrate back to the silted waters of the mine. Or die trying. Biologists have long chronicled how animals show a remarkable drive to return to their origins. And so relocating animals is not always a viable option, especially when it comes to apex predators who happen to have a territorial streak, powerful jaws, and more than five dozen teeth. So we were testing this idea, satellite tagging these crocs that had to be moved anyways, and transferring them back within the park to where the Olifants River borders Mozambique. [Read more...]
This post is co-authored by Liz Neeley and Erica Goldman. It is a continuation of our series on our NSF-funded GradSciComm project.
It was approaching midnight on December 5, 2013, and the COMPASS team was running out of gas. We were in the middle of our two-day #GradSciComm meeting at the National Academy of Sciences. “The only way out is through,” we told ourselves, bleary eyed and punchy with fatigue.
Day 1 had gone quite well. Our stellar group of participants – science communication researchers, practitioners, administrators, and graduate student leaders from a range of STEM disciplines – had engaged with an enthusiasm that was more than we could have hoped for. They were brimming with ideas of what might be done. Yet we were struggling with how to coalesce all of the insights from Day 1 to move ahead in working groups on Day 2. One particular roadblock felt like it was obstructing every path forward: the lack of funding.
Around and around we went, until suddenly – a breakthrough! What would happen if we stop thinking of funding as a roadblock… and instead think of it as a solution to obstacles we face in teaching and conducting effective science communication? What are the first and most transformative investments that we could make? Once we demolished that roadblock, all the pieces began to fall into place. We powered through a synthesis of the discussions from Day 1, locked down the specifics for breakout group assignments, and were ready to charge into Day 2.
The next morning, we held our breaths, watching the room as we unveiled a reframing of our collective task. We had originally believed it was “mapping a course to improve national training capacity in science communication for STEM graduate students.” However, our discussions had made us realize that communication skills cannot be thought of as extras to be bolted onto existing graduate education structures. They are fundamental competencies that need to be woven throughout training.
Our task is in fact, “mapping the pathways to integrate science communication core competencies into STEM graduate student training.” Of course funding is a real-world limitation, but we can’t move forward until we start asking about how we should use it to pave those pathways.
An audible murmur of accord affirmed our midnight breakthrough. The rest of the second day flew past with highly motivated teams working and sharing their visions of how to progress. We collectively closed out 2013 on the high of a successful event and the promise of more great things to come.
The group focused on how we might align incentives to give graduate students the motivation and permission to include science communication in their training. We identified that students will need to know what options are available to them and have tools at their disposal, such as individual development plans, that allow them to tailor their skill development to their preferred career trajectories. The group also discussed the critical importance of monitoring and evaluation as a cornerstone of effective practice in communication training.
Here is the one-page summary of the outcomes of our discussions, and you can explore deeper with the presentations we gave on site.
Slides from Day 1
Slides from Day 2
- Writing the roadmap. COMPASS is taking the lead on writing a series of documents, collectively called “the #gradscicomm roadmap.” We envision this as something like a tiered layer cake: at the top, a single-page, visual representation of our theory of change. Supporting that, a multipage report outlining the work we’ve conducted, a brief literature review, and summary of the workshop and findings. And finally, we expect other products, likely to include presentations and submissions to the peer-reviewed literature.
- AAAS in Chicago this February. In our first public presentation, find Erica and Brooke leading the session, “Building National Capacity in Science Communication for STEM Graduate Students” on Valentine’s Day morning. It features many of our workshop participants, and many more will be in attendance. Join us for a meet-up later to continue the conversations in a more social setting (to be scheduled – we’ll update with details ASAP!)
- University courses. Like many of the other workshop participants, beginning in mid-January, Liz starts teaching her ENVIR500 series again at University of Washington. This is a series of 1-credit short courses in science communication, based on COMPASS workshops, and designed for PhD students in the College of the Environment and beyond. If you’d like to swap syllabi & advice about teaching, please reach out.
We’d love to hear from you with ideas and opportunities as we write up and push forward. Please be in touch with us by email or comment on this post to share your thoughts. We are invigorated by where 2013 has brought the #gradscicomm effort and are looking forward to the New Year with energy and anticipation.
Speaking of growth, we’re hiring to do even more next year! Descriptions for three new positions are on our careers page.
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Roundtable on the “Public Interfaces of the Life Sciences” (which I have the huge honor of serving on), convened a workshop to explore “The Sustainable Infrastructures for Life Science Communication.” While our title is a mouth full, this topic is near and dear to my heart and COMPASS’ soul.
Our general premise: scientist engagement does not just happen. It takes work, support, policies, help, mechanisms, resources, and cultural acceptance, among other things. Additionally, there are barriers that make it challenging for scientists to engage – from lack of funding, to an antiquated promotion and tenure structure (at most institutions). With this in mind, our Roundtable members, invited speakers, and guests came together to explore all the things that help, support, allow, incentivize… and equally disallow or dis-incentivize scientists from engaging with various audiences or publics.
Day 1 of our gathering focused on sharing data and stories about these sustainable infrastructures for life scientists’ ability to engage. We had a full and intense day. I invite you to scroll through my Storify of Day 1 of the Roundtable (also below) – to learn what was presented and discussed. [Read more...]