8 tips for good science communication

January 8, 2014
Graphic of a beaker with text inside saying "8 tips for good science communication".

This is a guest post by Casey Harrigan, a producer on Channel Ten’s kid’s science show Scope, which is produced in association with CSIRO.

Since late high school when I found out what science communication was, I wanted to do it. I have a sneaky feeling I was already doing it, always being the loud smart-mouth in the classroom re-explaining what the teacher didn’t make clear or interesting enough. Now I’m the one at parties who corners the scientist, makes them tell me all about their research into synthetic organic chemistry, and then races around the rest of the room bragging on their behalf.

I’ve been studying and practicing science communication for the last six years. Here’s what you would have learned if you did the same thing (you can thank me for saving you 6 years later!). Some of these tips are fairly general, as a good communicator is a good science communicator.

Know more than you need to know

Before you jump into the communication part, make sure your first step is good old fashioned research; it’s worth stretching your legs for. Read as much as you can on the topic at hand, and follow the black hole of links as far as you need to. If you’re interviewing an expert, ask a lot of questions – if you have done the initial research, you probably won’t need to worry about asking a ‘stupid’ question, but even if you do, trust me they won’t mind. Everyone loves being asked about themselves and their work, and scientists in particular love having an audience that takes the time to really listen. A lot of what you learn will never make it into your final piece, but that investment in research time will be paid back in spades when you are writing or presenting. For example, if you are asked follow-up questions – either by your editor or your audience – you’ll be all set to give more information and justify your decisions.

Know your medium

There are lots of different ways to tell stories – news articles, radio features, television stories, even twitter posts. Create specifically for your chosen medium. For verbal pieces use contractions, keep your sentences short, and be casual so that the audience can relate. For longer written pieces you can play with metaphor and structure as your reader will be paying more attention. And always keep in mind how long your piece needs to be to hold your audience’s attention.

In my day job as a television producer, I’m lucky enough to play with visuals as well. The beauty of television is that it lets you show and tell at the same time, so don’t be shy thinking outside the box for visuals. For example, a recent story about the physics of pole vaulting contained plenty of action shots, but I also included shots of elephants with a voiceover explaining that a high level pole vaulter could clear three elephants stacked on top of each other.

Prioritise your audience, not yourself

Your intentions have absolutely nothing to do with how someone interprets your work. Just because you mean something one way doesn’t mean your audience will take it in that way. It can be tough, but always try to be objective. This is often the area communicators struggle most with when it comes to communicating science. Sometimes you need to interpret some pretty heavy facts, and what you might think makes sense, might not be what resonates most with your audience.

It can help a lot to get a second opinion. Ideally you’d have a focus or reference group, but even if you don’t you can test what you mean with colleagues and friends. It can make all the difference! I have reminded myself on many occasions that the best writers in the world still have editors. And it didn’t take me long to get to the point where I didn’t want to produce something without it being thoroughly looked over. Learn to love criticism and use it to your advantage. Nine times out of ten it will improve your work.

Sometimes it pays to explain a subject explicitly. The few extra sentences it takes will inform the rest of the information in the piece. People like feeling smart, so explaining something well that helps them understand the rest of the article will make them more engaged throughout.

Limit jargon and big words

Don’t use a long word when a short one will do – it looks like you’re showing off. Plus there is the chance some people won’t understand it. This again will help your audience feel more engaged – instead of using a big word they might miss, explain yourself more clearly and give them the gift of understanding.

The facts don’t matter

Well, they do – but see what I did there? Your piece should be about the idea, not the facts.  Anyone can regurgitate facts, and thanks to the power of search engines, they are more accessible to your audience than ever.

Communicating the context of why the discovery is so brilliant or why the idea is truly original is much harder. Tell an exciting story, make your audience curious, and they’ll search out all the facts they want.

It’s the story that matters

Yes, its amazing that stomach ulcers are caused by the bacteria helicobactor pylori, not by stress.  What’s more amazing is that I actually remembered that name off the top of my head. Why? Because of the story and people behind it. Eventual Noble Prize winners Robin Warren and Barry Marshall were so convinced that they were onto something that Barry went ahead and swallowed a bacteria sample and, sure enough, was diagnosed with an ulcer three days later. Don’t be afraid to add colour and details that aren’t completely relevant. If you can create narrative and personality in your piece, it will be so much more memorable.

If you like it, stick with it

Everyone likes different things, and that’s great. Some people love to hear David Attenborough’s soothing delivery, while others prefer Dr Karl Kruszelnicki’s more frenetic pace – and there is nothing wrong with either.  The audience for popular science is incredibly varied, so science communicators get to be a varied lot also. Maybe you love drawing comics of famous scientists making their biggest discoveries. You might be particularly skilled at interviewing scientists and making them feel comfortable and forthcoming. Or you could be a wizard with the written word with a knack for crafting feature articles.

Find your passion – what you like to read, make and do – then figure out how to communicate it in a way that inspires others.

There are all sorts of lofty reasons why science communication is important, but when it comes down to it, putting your communication skills to use for science lets you tell incredible and surprising stories. And I think that makes it a pretty great gig!

How can we help?
Casey Harrigan
Production Manager