Post written by Jessica Chen
I have found that both scientists and non-scientists (almost) universally agree that educating the public and being more involved in policy-making are of great importance. Interestingly, I am frequently met with gratitude for what others assume to be a noble, yet tedious, cause. I am often told “I don’t know how you do it… I couldn’t have the patience for that.”
A common misconception about “science communication” (SciComm) is that it always involves getting into a heated argument with someone who is blatantly opposed to science and logic. Understandably, due to the very visceral reactions that can be elicited in such situations, the most frustrating interactions become the most memorable, and the most memorable interactions can drive behavior. However, it’s important to note that those interactions are the extremes, and that it’s erroneous to draw conclusions based off of the outliers. Like how it takes time to troubleshoot an experiment, it takes some trial and error to find a method that fits your style of communication. There are many different ways to achieve a fulfilling and impactful experience.
So how can you SciComm and stay calm?
First, know yourself. Know your strengths and weaknesses and your area of expertise. Use what you’re good at as your method of communication. If you like writing, then try blogging. If you like talking, then go talk to people. However you choose, make sure you are familiar with the topic you’re communicating and its counterarguments. Discussing something in which you’re not an expert but attempting to assume the persona of an expert can do more harm than good. For me, written communication is a more comfortable medium (i.e. blogs & tweets), because it allows me time to think. Whereas oral communication can be tricky, because I’ll sometimes find myself stumped by a question I cannot answer immediately. In such flustering situations, know that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know, that’s not my field of expertise,” but always follow-up with “let’s figure it out together.” That’s a wonderful way to show your human side, to show others how you learn, and to show people that it’s okay to be wrong and to question.
Second, know your audience. You cannot effectively deliver and encourage info retention without knowing the preexisting base of knowledge upon which you are building. I have found that polling questions are very effective for probing baseline knowledge in big audiences. For smaller audiences, try asking opinion questions and paying attention to the type of language used in their responses. I cannot stress enough how important it is to recognize that lack of exposure to terminology doesn’t mean lack of ability to understand. An audience, unfamiliar with a topic, can neither identify important info, nor follow a storyline because gaps in their knowledge were not addressed. So, invest time in getting to know your audience and building trust, the most important aspect of successful communication. Understand that telling someone you’re a “PhD in blah blah” is not going to earn his or her trust, because credentials mean nothing if your audience doesn’t know what you’re saying. A common source of failure is forgetting that communication is a two-way street, and assuming a “lecture style conversation.” Info-dumping is very ineffective outside of the classroom. Instead, aim to have a real conversation. Know that a goal to modify and add to someone’s knowledge is much more achievable than overwriting it. Then, by guiding your audience to make their own connections, using what they already know, the knowledge you deliver will be more easily accepted.
Third, set limits. Your time is valuable, so understand that if a person’s mind is made up, a single conversation is unlikely to change it. Learning comes more easily when people want to learn. You will not reach everyone, so narrow your focus to the people who have not yet established a position. This target audience is still looking to gain information, so be their trustworthy source. Know that there are people out there who will take and take, but you have a limited supply to give. Give wisely. Unless you’ve decided to make a career of SciComm, you still need to do what pays the bills. Know what you want out of an experience, be it money, satisfaction, connections, etc., and set your time commitments beforehand. SciComm is my hobby and it benefits others, a win-win situation. You need not martyr yourself for the sake of SciComm. Do it only if it calls to you and make sure you gain from it too.
So basically, the secrets to a successful and rewarding SciComm experience are to know yourself, know your audience, and set limits.
About Jessica Chen
Jessica Chen is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan with interests in regeneration, stem cells, and translational medicine, science communication, education volunteering and increasing diversity/equity/inclusion in STEM. Did you enjoy today’s blog? Do you have any questions about how to #SciComm and #StayCalm? Reach out to Jessica on Twitter at @BluntDrJChen