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News
22 August 2016

Say it honestly, say it straight

Science communication must be authentic and compelling and it must respect the cultural, gender and background differences of the audience, said Liz Neeley, an influential expert in communication.

Behind every scientific discovery there are months and years of research, an investment of passion and hard work, and perseverance through times of doubt and confusion. If, in the end, the story of the discovery can be told well, the scientist can inform and inspire the public, shape policy and funding decisions, and help to build a strong, respectful relationship between science and the broader society. But what if scientists formulate their message in the wrong way? What if their communication falls flat, or fails?

Liz Neeley, the executive director at The Story Collider, has a clear idea about the way scientists should report about their research: "There is no single right or wrong way to communicate," Neeley said in a recent TWAS presentation. "What's really important is to convey authentic, clear and compelling messages." If scientists are competent and credible, and when they're good storytellers, that engages the audience, and it builds a bond of trust. That's where the best science communication happens.

In her childhood, Neeley loved colors so much she dreamed of working in a crayon factory. Her obsession took her on a slightly surprising path into marine biology. While at Boston University in the United States, she studied color patterns and visual communication in tropical reef fishes. That fired her interest in communication among scientists. She served as the assistant director of science outreach for COMPASS, a U.S. communication initiative which helps scientists find their storytelling voice. Today Neeley is a member of the advisory board to the CommsLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

In a presentation on science communication at the third annual AAAS-TWAS summer course on Science Diplomacy, she gave participants powerful ideas for connecting with an audience. Then, in an interview with TWAS staff writer Cristina Serra, Neeley described some important advice for scientists if they want to communicate with maximum impact.

When you teach scientists how to communicate, what is the first and most important recommendation that you offer?

What I often tell them it's that it is a myth that scientists are bad at communicating. This is a stereotype, and it's damaging. I think the truth is that we have been trained to communicate with our peers in ways that are counterproductive when we are trying to talk to the public or to funders or other groups. So, first I remind researchers that they suffer from what we call "the curse of too much knowledge". They have forgotten what it feels like not to be an expert. What I suggest is that they start with asking, "Why should people care about this? What’s important?" I tell them: it's not only about reducing the jargon and technical language that you use, but also about learning to think about your audience, and understand that the questions they have are just as important as the things you want to say.

Quite often scientists avoid public communication – maybe they think that doing science is much better and important than talking to journalists. How do you persuade them about the importance of scientific outreach?

In science, we often say "publish or perish", and I think it's true also in a broader sense: that if we don't share our knowledge, it is as we have never created it. So whether it's basic science findings, or the latest medicine or environmental research, getting broader support from people who are funding your research is just as important as pushing forward the boundaries of that knowledge.

Scientists want to publicize their work and need to do it, but at the same time they tend to keep a low profile, avoid overexposure with respect to other colleagues. What is your advice on this behaviour?

I think humility is an admirable quality, and when I work with scientists I appreciate that they are so careful not to promote themselves and keep an eye on what the facts tell them. However, I think this is a pragmatic argument. If you are not out in the public talking about your work, there are two alternatives, both of which are bad: one is that you have ceded the conversation to people who do not share your agenda and may not have your same commitment to facts and truth. The second is that no one is talking about your topic at all. It can be hard to feel like you are self-aggrandizing and are promoting yourself. On the contrary, I think it helps to tell stories about the struggles and challenges along the way, and the collaborations that help to get to where you are. But, overall, what scientists have to remind themselves is that they are not talking of themselves. They are talking about their science, acting in service to the facts that they have discovered.

Do you encourage them to talk also about their failures?

I do. In general we don't like talking about failures, which are important as well. Talking about failures is embarrassing, but failure happens. We know that there is a publication bias against failures, and that this hurts the entire enterprise of science. I think it also hurts our reputation in broader communities: people think that scientists are arrogant or that they cannot connect to daily lives and challenges of people in their countries. For this reason, I think it is important to talk about failures, as well as of successes. But my communications advice is to begin with what you know, because if you start by saying all the things that went wrong and all the things that you don't know, then you may find yourself with people wondering: 'Why on earth are we trusting you with so much money?'

During interviews, scientists often tend to use jargon and explain technical details that are difficult to understand. What's your advice on this tendency?

I think it is always important to be transparent, and be willing to go as far down into data analysis as is appropriate. But I don't think they should start with this, even with journalists who are very technical. This is where it is important to gain communication skills. In both scientific conversations and interviews it may happen that people are unfamiliar with technical terms – and if you pay attention, you see that people send all sorts of verbal and nonverbal signals about their comprehension and interest levels in a conversation. This is why listening is perhaps the most important communication skill. In addition, even when they are talking to journalists, the final audience is who the journalists are writing for, and so if they can deliver a clear message in their own words, that's still better than leaving it to someone else.

What are a few things that scientists should definitely avoid when dealing with journalists?

The most important single piece of advice is: Do not treat people like they are stupid. Over and over again we overestimate the technical knowledge of an audience, and throw jargon at them. And, in general, we underestimate their general intelligence. Why should anyone who has just been insulted feel willing to listen to you? So I think that the most important thing is to remember that people have very busy lives and also different expertise, and that brings an overflow of information. When we're talking about science, we need to approach by asking: "Why should they care? Why should they spend effort to understand what it is that we're trying to explain?"

What are a few things that scientists should certainly do when interacting with journalists?

The most important thing is to have a clear message. To know exactly what you want to say. And then the second most important thing is to be able to tell great stories, as people remember stories; they like to hear about characters, and to hear about failures, disasters and adventures. I think that the most valuable thing that most scientists have is not only their data but also their passion. And being able to explain why they are dedicating their whole life to this beautiful, abstract, weird thing! They can use their own life, their whole passion, to help people understand what they are doing.

Many scientists, when asked a question, sometimes start talking and then, it seems, don't know when to stop. Do you advise them on this behaviour in your training sessions?

I remind scientists that for many of us, we were trained in large lecture halls, where senior scientists were lecturing us and standing in front of us for hours. And that we showed our respect and proved ourselves by listening for hours, and working to become that person. I remind them that that's not a good model for dealing with the rest of the world. People don't want to be lectured; they want to be talked to. And when you talk with someone, you pause, you watch their face, you ask them questions. And then it becomes a dialogue.  

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