Burning Down Communication Barriers Among Fire Scientists

Tough questions from journalists often spark new insights for scientists. Here’s our panel of journalists (left to right, Ivan Semeniuk, Douglas Fischer, Natasha Loder, and David Malakoff) poised to grill a trio of scientists during a mock press conference at the workshop. 
Photo by Heather Reiff.

Fire may be one of the clearest manifestations we have of climate change – it’s visible, palpable, and stirs our emotions. Headlines from last week’s release of the Third National Climate Assessment predict a growing rash of wildfires. Fire seasons are lengthening. Fires are occurring in places or at scales they haven’t in the past. The US Forest Service intends to spend almost $2 billion to manage and minimize the impacts of fires across the country this year. When it comes to communicating with the public, the “why should I care” obstacle faced by scientists in most research arenas is almost non-existent for those studying fire. But, other communication challenges – complexity, uncertainty, risk, reframing – remain. [Read more…]

How To Make Yourself Presentable

Taking a new approach to your scientific talk could win you hearty applause from your peers. Photo credit: open hardware summit

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. [Read more…]

Getting To The “So What?” Of Your Science

WhitePixel
Galindo MB 2006

Handwritten message box from my own COMPASS training as a graduate student (click to enlarge)

Recently, I rediscovered a description of my PhD research produced at a COMPASS training I attended in 2006. I deciphered my messy handwriting to find that I had used the analogy of how people move between cities to explain why I used DNA to track movements of marine plankton between populations. In both cases, understanding how many and how often individuals change locations can inform what might happen if these connections are disrupted. (Think about a freeway shutting down between San Francisco and Los Angeles.) As movement between places is reduced, so is the flow of goods and services, thereby isolating populations.

It turns out that my early attempts at finding the “so what” of my science used the very same tool that we still use at COMPASS today: The Message Box. At all COMPASS trainings (which typically range from half-day to three-day events), the Message Box is how we help scientists distill their science into the most essential and intriguing pieces. These are the key ideas with which you can build a firm foundation of understanding about your research in conversation with almost any audience. It’s not about dumbing anything down. Instead, the Message Box illuminates the heart of your science and inspires your audience to want to learn more. [Read more…]

Social Media And Quiz!

In advance of a recent COMPASS communication training for university faculty, I gathered responses to the question: Do you use social media such as Twitter and Facebook?  Here’s a representative sample of their answers:
•    No
•    No blogs or social media
•    No, I do not use any of the social media mentioned above
•    No
•    I have a twitter account but do not use it
•    I do not read blogs and do not use social media
•    Not really [Read more…]

What Makes A Great Radio Interview?

Photo courtesy of dplanet via Flickr

In my last post, I described the importance of being a good listener in order to be an effective communicator.  As the former production assistant for the environmental radio show Living on Earth, (and as the show’s current part-time transcriber), I’ve had many opportunities to listen critically to and to be a part of great science-minded radio.  While there are many excellent guides out there for interview tips (like this one from AAAS), here are some of the interviewee qualities that I found make for an ultimately interesting and effective piece, as well as some of my own tips for how to best tell your story in this medium: [Read more…]

I Hear What You’re Saying, But….

At a recent training for Switzer Fellows, participants learned the value of active listening in being a good communicator.

This weekend, Erica Goldman and I traveled to a town outside of Boston to deliver a communications workshop for the 2012 New England Switzer Fellows. The fellows are in the midst of their graduate educations, and have diverse backgrounds – they are law students, representatives of NGOs, interdisciplinary and field scientists – all within the realm of environmental sustainability.

Like many of our workshops, our central message to the participants focused on the importance of understanding your audience when communicating your work. That includes formatting your work into clear and succinct messages, but it’s also about understanding the culture in which your audience exists, so as to make your work relevant to them and what they most care about… their “so what?” [Read more…]

Taming Beastly Press Releases

As a verb, pique means “to stimulate (interest or curiosity).” As a noun, however, it has a rather different sense: “a feeling of irritation or resentment.” It strikes me that there may be no more perfect word to describe a certain fixture of the science journalism world… the press release. [Read more…]