23 June 2014
By Alexandra Branscombe
When researchers run an experiment in the laboratory, it is usually after taking time to craft and design the experiment that will provide the most accurate results. Science communication is the same: crafting a complex message about science before delivering it to the public takes time and editing to yield the best results.
Each year for the past four years, communication experts at the American Geophysical Union have guided scientists through message crafting and storytelling exercises at a communications workshop as part of the American Meteorological Society’s Summer Policy Colloquium.
This year, practiced message crafters from Science magazine, George Mason University, and AGU described at the June 5 workshop how scientists can use the skill of message making to share science with the public. Here are three of their tips for making a compelling message or story:
Consider the audience
The first step for any communications exercise is to envision your audience. When talking about science, different audiences need to hear messages that will reflect their distinct values.
“Try to know your audience before trying to communicate,” said Katherine Rowan, a professor of communication at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “Listen, respect, and learn the audiences’ view.”
Rowan used the spectrum of climate change audiences as an example, which ranges from those who are alarmed about climate change to those who are dismissive and least concerned about the issue. A climate scientist cannot share a speech crafted for an environmental activist group with a room of doubtful members of a community group. If the scientist did, he or she would most likely fail to connect to the community group because their questions or doubts would go unanswered.
The key is to “find out what questions the audiences are asking,” Rowan said. If a communicator already knows some of the questions pressing his or her audience, then answers can be worked into the message to address confusion or doubt.
Distill your message
As anyone who has taken high school chemistry knows, distillation is a very hands-on process that painstakingly removes the impurities of a substance until all that is left is its essence. The remainder is the most important, condensed version of the material.
It turns out that crafting a science message is no different.
“A message is best expressed when reduced to simplest terms,” said Bill Douthitt, senior photography editor at Science magazine. “Write the message down, and then distill it.”
Douthitt explained that creating an effective message requires careful crafting, re-working, and never being satisfied with the first draft. Developing a clear message about a complicated topic, like ocean acidification for example, may mean taking a break and returning to it the next day.
“Ask yourself: Am I being simple? Am I using jargon?” he advised the group. Jargon can easily clutter a concise message, or confuse the audience, Douthitt said, so using a simpler word will have a greater impact.
Construct a narrative
The scientific process is a natural and compelling story. It is filled with mystery and climactic struggles. But for scientists who have never considered sharing science in story form, a little practice can go a long way toward mastering this tool.
Mary Catherine Adams, a public information specialist focused on member engagement at AGU, presented four story writing narratives identified by AGU strategic communication specialist Olivia Ambrogio that work well for science communication. She encouraged scientists to try telling stories about their science using one of these narrative forms:
Journey: A journey is a story about travel. Voyaging to Antarctica to study glaciers, or to Chile to look at earthquakes, or even performing fieldwork within range of home are science journeys.
Quest: Similar to a journey, a quest is about seeking answers – something all researchers do. In a quest story, make sure to include the trials and triumphs that occurred along the way to a new discovery.
Mystery: Science and mystery naturally go together. Think about all the science-based dramas on television, such as CSI. Crafting a story about studying ice cores to reveal clues about Earth’s atmospheric history is an example.
Stranger comes to town: This is when someone, or something, unexpected enters the scene. This can be very similar to a mystery, but is based on a specific event. Examples of science strangers include a tsunami or a destructive super storm.
Taking a complex science topic and making it memorable and compelling for a general audience takes practice, but following these expert tips can give you a head start. The take home message from all the panelists: a simple message crafted specifically for your audience will have the most impact.
– Alexandra Branscombe is a science writing intern in AGU’s Public Information department