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The Key to Communicating Science? Connect to People’s Daily Lives, Experts Say

For years, researcher Scott Doney has been tracking an alarming rise in ocean acidity and its effects on marine life such as clams and lobsters. So when he wanted to bring more attention to the links between pollution and acidification, he spoke with shellfish harvesters and seafood wholesalers whose livelihoods depend on healthy waters.

Restaurateurs are next on his list, said Doney. But to engage these diverse audiences, the senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution knows he must adjust his arguments and the language he uses to convey his concern.

For Doney, the lesson is clear: To communicate science effectively, it’s best to engage people in ways that reflect and affect their own lives. He discussed his experience as part of a 5 May panel on communicating science at the AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.

The 36th annual Forum, organized by AAAS Science and Policy Programs, convened nearly 500 U.S. and foreign leaders from government, education, and business to hear top policy experts talk on critical issues. This year’s event, held 5-6 May, had a strong focus on U.S. innovation and the importance of federal investment in science and technology.

Rick Borchelt, a communications advisor to National Cancer Institute Director Harold Varmus, said scientists are generally good about making themselves available and getting information out. But they are cautious about going beyond those basic steps to interpret information and put it into context.

He quickly reviewed how the media environment has changed. A generation ago large metropolitan newspapers and the television network evening newscasts dominated coverage. Today that paradigm has been shattered, replaced by a 24/7 news cycle that plays out across various communications platforms. “If your agency or institution is not available on a handheld device,” Borchelt warned, “then you are already a dinosaur.”

Long gone are the days when management consciously shielded former New York Times Science Editor Cornelia Dean from reader survey data, saying she should use her own judgment.

Consumer choice is now king, she said. She quoted from a recent report from the Pew Research Center for People and the Press: “‘The future belongs to those who understand the public’s changing behavior and can target content and advertising to snugly fit the interests of each user.’”

Frame It

Borchelt emphasized a common theme of the panel: There is no one, single public, but rather many different publics with different levels of sophistication and motivation. Effective communication depends upon identifying these audiences and their interests, he said, and shaping messages based on this information.

Nancy Baron, director of science outreach with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), said it is crucial for scientists to identify the most important thing they have to say about their research, and then figure out how to say it to a particular audience. For Baron, the “so what” question—why should this issue matter?—must be at the crux of their preparations.

“The way you frame something provides the story line that addresses what’s at stake,” she said. The better scientists tailor their arguments and language to the needs of their audience, the more successful their communications will be. This is not spin, Baron said, but rather a reframing of the issues to meet people where their interests and experience lie.

To illustrate her point, she showed a pair of videos of University of Maryland environmental scientist Margaret Palmer. The “before” video was a pre-training confessional where Palmer admitted she gets a lot of calls from the press—and didn’t return most of them. The second clip showed her after communications training and more experience, bantering with Stephen Colbert on his faux-news show, “The Colbert Report,” and getting her message across in a tough environment.

“There is an intrinsic link between communications and leadership,” Baron said. If scientists want to be agents of change, she added, communications skills are essential. Unless researchers can articulate their vision and argue effectively with those who disagree with them, she noted, their influence is reduced.

Show It

Visual tools are crucial for researchers who want to get their message across to the public, said communications consultant Dennis Meredith, who provides some of these tools at his Web site. “Your audiences live in a very sophisticated visual environment. They go to movies like Iron Man II with elaborate special effects,” and see complex graphics on the nightly news, he said.

Why are visuals so important? Because just 10% of what is heard is retained, Meredith noted, while 35% of visual information is retained. And when a message is both seen and heard, retention rises to a robust 65%.

Meredith also pointed to Apple’s Steve Jobs as an exemplar of the old maxim of public speaking—motion breeds emotion. The master communicator relentlessly paces the stage at Apple showcase events, rather than remaining pinned behind a podium. Jobs also wears dark clothes against a dark background to direct attention to his face. He achieves the same effect by rolling up his sleeves to expose his arms as he gestures at products and slides.

Dean said scientists also need to understand that most people learn information through narrative stories and not as a set of atomized data points. The language used to frame those stories can be crucial, she noted. For example, scientists can evoke very different reactions from their audiences depending on whether they express the outcome of a particular medical intervention as a 10% mortality or 90% survival rate.

The old model of communications was less interactive, Doney said. A researcher would write a paper and perhaps even an article in something like Scientific American and “see where it would go,” he recalled. “It was not very effective.”

The contemporary paradigm “is a much more nuanced and networked process. Scientists need to be engaging not just people in federal agencies, not just the media, but reaching out to business leaders, NGOs [nongovernmental organizations],” he said. “The problem is this networking takes a huge amount of time and resources.”

Communications today have to be two-way, he said, and that sort of public engagement can be a demanding process. But, Doney concluded, it also delivers unexpected benefits.

“We are really learning what the questions are, what the stakeholders want,” he said. “And from that we are asking better science questions, we are doing more relevant science.”

See full coverage of the 36th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy.