Over more than 25 years of telling the story of science I’ve settled on these top 5 simple hints to help me better communicate science to a broad audience. I hope they help you. I’d love to hear your feedback.
1. Give the punch line first
While it has taken you anywhere from 12 months to 12 years to get to this answer or piece of new information, frankly few want to hear about the journey. Sorry. Your 12 months/years will be 30 seconds on radio, less than 5 seconds on TV and maybe one paragraph in print (online or otherwise). Tell everyone the punch line first! It is your richest information. If they are really interested they will follow up for more.
2. Tell the story, don’t sell the story
Just tell a simple story about your science information, findings or work. Don’t worry about trying to convince people of the merits of the work or even how important the need is for more $ to do more. Once you start to sound like you are selling something it brings a whole different set of values to the listener. They will miss your main point. Imagine if Red Riding Hood were an ad for cookies rather than a simple story about granny with cookies in it. Think ahead and plan to tell your story.
3. Use common language
Science is full of wonderful and complex words. Many are important for us scientists to communicate to each other. Most people do not use or understand these words. If you want to talk to most people, use common language. We all have our aunt the butcher or a cousin the potter or a sibling who is an accountant – imagine you are explaining it to one of them. They are most people. Use their words.
4. Use non-science to bring people in
Don’t be afraid to use the “hook” of a non-scientific and commonly known activity, person or situation to draw in your audience. The hook helps them decide if they want to hear more. Once listening to you can tell them your story. I have a friend who recently found 25 new species of fish with a colleague. Big news in science but not much outside of their field! They had large news coverage by naming one after a famous author. This helped them get their broader story much more coverage than they otherwise would.
5. Maintain your credibility
While using any of the above (or any other) hints make sure you are always seen as credible. This is your value and your power as a communicator of science. There is research to show it! Do experiment and be innovative but if your gut (or a trusted colleague) tells you that a certain approach or gimmick might make you look silly, there is a really good chance it will. Be credible not silly. Tell simple short stories in common language.
Maybe you have a few other tips and ideas that work for you? Please share yours.