Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Some tips on communicating science to the public

As I wrote in October 26, an interactive EMBO Science & Society Session on how to communicate controversial scientific topics was held at the PRBB conference hall a month ago. I couldn’t attend but have had a chance to see some of the talks that were recorded, and I think there were some useful tips for all scientists who are interested in talking about their work to the general public (which should be ALL scientists!). As Patrick L. Taylor, from the Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, wrote in a commentary in Nature a couple of weeks ago, “public engagement can directly affect research” and “public involvement is inevitable, whether invited or not”. So, if you are a scientist, you’d better be prepared to get the public on your side…

Here are some notes to help you. They are mostly words from award-winning documentary maker and media consultant Eric May, who talked at the workshop at the PRBB about “Dealing with difficult (scientific) topics in public”. They seem obvious, but I think one needs to hear them and think about them every now and then…

“Failure to communicate is always the fault of the communicator”
“It is not what you know, but how you express it, that is decisive in your audience understanding it”
“If you know something, it is very hard to imagine that other people don’t know it” – but you must! The language you use must be clear, you must never use jargon. Use simple sentences and strong statements (journalists won’t spend forever listening to you, they are looking for the one or two sentences they can take with them).

“You must think of your audience”- how they feel, what they are likely to think. One of the main issues May emphasized was the need to express ideas in terms of ‘shared values’, such as fears, dreams, hopes, disappointments, etc. If you can, find a story, ordinary people who are or could be affected by what you do. Make people trust you and share in the understanding of the wonder of scientific developments. Finally, “ask yourself, as a human being, what is it that interests you about what you are doing?” If something deeply interests you as a human, it will likely interest others, too.

Next week I’ll be attending an European Forum on Science Journalism which will take place in Barcelona. I’m sure I will be hearing some exciting talks and I will sure post the highlights here!

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