Guest Blog: Communicating Science Effectively

Racing heart. Hot neck. Sweaty palms. Nervous ticks.

Do you often experience these symptoms? If you experience 2 or more of these symptoms, you may be suffering from a common condition referred to as Pre-Talk Anxiety.

Last fall, I decided to battle these nerve-racking symptoms. I would not be ruled by stress and anxiety before giving a talk. I have also had the distinct displeasure of being an audience member in various science talks that seemed like they would never end – the speaker was hidden behind the podium, spoke for 50 minutes in a monotone voice, and the slides were boring and hard to decipher. Besides a fitful and awkward nap, I took nothing substantial from these talks. They were a waste of my time. As a graduate student, I attend about 3-5 scientific talks a week with each talk ranging from 30 to 60 minutes – these include journal club, research talks by my peers, and invited speakers from other institutions. If at minimum I spend 3 hours a week listening to science talks, over the course of a school year, I listen to over 90 hours of talks a year. That’s a lot of time! While I’m sure there are many strategies to become an effective listener, a sure fire way to ensure that no one naps during your talk is to be an engaging speaker.

This is why, among other reasons, I started my journey to becoming an effective communicator by signing up for a course offered at the University of Washington: ASTR 599B – Communicating Science to the Public Effectively. This 2 credits course met every Monday from 2:30-5:20pm during the 2011 fall quarter. Throughout the course, graduate students practiced several strategies designed to make communicating science effective and accessible, used improvisation to reduce anxiety and promote audience engagement, and heard from many guest speakers on science communication. Each student’s final project will cumulate in a 30-minute public presentation to be delivered during the winter quarter’s Engage: The Science Speaker Series.

From the get go, we began working on our presentations for the Engage seminar. This is definitely a great way to get the most out of the course. We practiced storyboarding, improvisation, developing analogies to convey research, choosing content rather than jargon, distilling ideas concisely, and public speaking. If you walked by and looked into our classroom, you would often find us standing in a circle playing an improv game. Personally, one of the most nerve-wracking improvisation activities for me was to give a 1 minute presentation on a topic I was given 2 seconds before my talk began! We also had weekly readings and discussions and often heard from guest speakers.

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So what is the best way to engage your audience? Tell them a story! For the vast portion of human history, we have been oral storytellers and listeners. Our brains are hardwired to process this information quickly and store it away. Good stories have four main parts: the setup, complicating action, development, and climax. In the Setup, the initial situation is established and protagonist and the protagonist’s goals are introduced. In the Complicating Action, the story is taken in a new direction and there is some action (the antagonist may cause some strife here). In the Development, the protagonist’s struggles to complete the goals are developed in-depth. In the Climax, progress is made toward resolving the goal. If you so desire, you can even add an Epilogue part to wrap up the story. Take a look at any movie or even a SpongeBob SquarePants episode, you’ll see each of these parts play an integral role in making a good story. If you have ever watched a particularly bad movie, one of these parts might have been out of skew; the setup may have taken too long, there was no climax, or the complicating action was not developed. This may be why some scientific talks are hard for a general audience to sit through. Scientific talks are often presented in an order that is contrary to our storytelling hard-wired brains- Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. This format probably evolved because this is how scientific papers are written. But, there is still hope for us yet. We can take the very same storytelling strategies I mentioned above to make scientific talks easier to follow and more interesting to audiences.

A fellow UW SACNISTA, Laura Martinez, also took the course this fall. Not only was it my pleasure to see Laura every week, for your reading pleasure is her take on the course. Laura says, “I think it’s important to concisely and effectively communicate our research and findings to our colleagues in the scientific community and the greater public. Unfortunately, this is not an inherent skill for many, but is certainly expected in our fields. I was very motivated to take this course to challenge myself and to learn skills that would help me become a better communicator and to gain a growing confidence when encountering an audience. Our instructors and guest speakers offered very enlightening perspectives about engaging our audience by telling a story and giving our research work and findings personalities. Developing these skills comes with time but I strongly believe that it is well worth it to be able to effectively communicate science topics and issues and to dispel any information that is often misconstrued because of our inability to communicate it. Our work is meaningful and we can make a powerful impact on our close to home and heart communities and the greater public.”

As a SACNISTA, it is important that we not only do great science, but that we are able to communicate our work to our family, communities, and peers. Throughout my journey to become a better communicator, I have often thought about how I can take these strategies back to my tribe, where elders often don’t speak English and there is not even a word for “cell” and “DNA” in our language. This will be a challenge that we all face as we endeavor to become professionals in our respective fields, and still remain connected to our communities and cultures. But you can start by realizing your public speaking weaknesses and conquering them with effective strategies. In the interest of space, I’ve only relayed a few gems of advice, but I just want to mention that there are great resources out there where you can find a more thorough discussion on various topics. In particular, below I’ve listed some great resources for building your powers of communication.

Books

Olsen, Randy. Don’t Be Such a Scientists: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. Island Press, 2009.

Dean, Cornelia. Am I Making Myself Clear?: A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public. Harvard University Press, 2009.

Mooney, Chris and Cheryl Kirshenbaum. Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. Basic Books, 2009.

Looking for opportunities to improve your presentation skills?

The Pacific Science Center offers a Science Communication Fellowship that is composed of “professional development workshops focused on building the skills to effectively engage public audiences.

Also offered by the Pacific Science Center is a popular series called Science Café.

Check out the Toastmasters International. There are various Seattle Toastmaster Clubs you can become a part of.

Want a beer and science? Check out Science on Tap where several UW scientists are featured.

Radio Science? Academia Nut on Hollow Earth Radio

General information about Engage: The Science Speaker Series and Seminar.

More information specifically about the seminar.

Featured SACNISTAs in the Engage: The Science Speaker Series and Seminar

In addition, please support the your UW SACNAS Chapter peers. Both Laura and I took the course together last fall, and will be giving our Engage talks soon. Mark your calendars, but if you can’t make it, our talks will be recorded and uploaded onto this blog for anyone interested in viewing them. We have tried to use all of the strategies from the course so hopefully our talks can serve as an example on how to use analogies and what I mean by storytelling. Tickets are free to UW Students. Please bring your UW ID cards

Laura E. Martinez

The Life And Times Of A Cancer-Causing Bacterium That Can Thrive In The Human Stomach
Thursday February 23 08:15 PM Downstairs At Town Hall Part Ii

Katrina Claw
Mission Impossible: A Sperm’s Perilous Journey To The Center Of The Egg
Thursday March 01 08:15 PM Downstairs At Town Hall Part Ii

Katrina Claw is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Department of Genome Sciences. She is a member of the Navajo tribe and originally from Arizona. A more detailed profile of Katrina is located in an earlier blog post on Native American Heritage Month. 

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3 comments on “Guest Blog: Communicating Science Effectively

  1. Fantastic post! Thank you for your insights!

  2. […] Advocacy and Productive Group Planning; the aforementioned Katrina Claw, who wrote about Communicating Science Effectively; Tracie Delgado, who wrote about transitioning from graduate student to faculty member; Amber […]

  3. […] Katrina Claw, a PhD Candidate in Genome Sciences, Amber Caracol, a Biology Professor at UW Bothell and Seattle […]

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