The Do’s and Don’ts of Science Communication, for Scientists

Tips to help you communicate your research easily and effectively

 

The do's and don'ts of scicommCommunicating complex science is always tricky – especially when you are communicating with a lay audience. As a scientist you may have spent years stressing over the intricate details of your research; going back to basics can seem daunting.

You may worry that a brief presentation cannot explain the relevance of your research. How can one article possibly capture its potential?

But like it or not, outreach and communication is on everyone’s agendas. Funding councils expect you to disseminate your research findings; universities are eager to promote their science to stimulate industrial collaboration.

the do's and don'ts of scicomm 2If you feel a bit out of your depth, we recommend you read the series in The Guardian newspaper about science writing techniques.

Inspired by The Guardian’s advice on “How to write a science news story based on a research paper”, here is our own advice to scientists who want to write about their work.

Follow these rules to write eloquent and engaging prose – and be back at the lab bench in no time!

  1. Refine your message

Unlike science journalists you do not need to search for a top story: your research is that story! However the background to your research may be extensive and you may have published many papers which cover a broad – and at times tangential – base of theories and ideas. It is unnecessary to explain every aspect to your audience.

As Ian Sample of The Guardian advises, “Ask yourself: will anyone care? Be brutal about this. Move on if the answer is no.”

  1. But do not cut all of the detail

Whilst excess detail is dull, you should not forget the ‘nitty gritty’ of the science. Assume that your audience are intelligent but, until now, uneducated on your topic. So do not name every chemical reagent, but do mention sample sizes. Stick to the important details. Give the reader enough information to understand your topic but no more. In others words, ‘write it lean and keep ‘em keen’.

  1. Offer extra goodies

Eager readers will want to learn about your research. Offer links to further sources of information and where possible link back to your own papers, online profile or blog; if you do not promote yourself, who will?

  1. Interest your audience

Straight talking, no nonsense factual analyses are perfect for scientific papers. But leave them there. To attract the attention of the lay public, draw them in with feelings and excitement.

Ian Sample tells journalists to interview scientists, so you should ask these same questions to yourself.

“How did the face transplant patient react when they looked in the mirror? What possessed the authors to study spiders on cocaine? How did it feel to unearth the remnants of an ancient hearth, knowing a Neanderthal sat in the same spot 40,000 years ago?”

  1. Choose your words carefully

Science is rarely revolutionary. It is small steps on a long journey. So do not make bold statements that you cannot back up and be careful with your wording. If research is in its infancy, say you ‘may’ not you ‘will’.

  1. But be bold when you can be

Do not be afraid of making statements that you can back up. Why is your research important? Will your work on solar cells make them more affordable? How much more affordable? How much money will energy consumers save? How does this price compare to other fuel sources?

Bold but generic statements are good; specifics are even better. If you can include specific values or even ranges – for example, boost efficiency by 10-30% – it will be make a more memorable justification.

7. Communicate clearly

Be clear and use simple language. Ian Sample advises writers to tell the reader, “What do the results mean in plain English? What do they not mean?” Ditch clichés, lengthy analogies and overly detailed descriptions.

8. Remember who you are writing for

In the words of Ian Sample: “The reader may be clever and curious about the world. But do not assume they are scientists, or that they have time to read boring, unimportant or incoherent stories.” So make it easy for readers to understand. Never use technical terms when you can use simple words. Do not add in tangents.

9. Be right

Double check everything. You may be an expert but you are not immune to errors. Ian Sample explains, “Mistakes leave readers confused and misinformed. They will undermine your credibility too. Call a shrew a rodent and your soricid story is ruined.”

 10. Write well

It is important to craft a story from your science and move through each idea in a logical order so can keep page with any complexities in the text.

The Guardian article advises writers to “stick to one idea for each paragraph”; experience has also taught us to avoid long sentences and too many sub clauses.

In a nutshell:

Do

• Convey the importance, excitement and potential of your research

• Double check your facts

Do Not

• Patronise your readers
• Write as you would in a journal

 

Want some more advice? We will be happy to have an informal chat to share our experience and offer free advice on how you can improve your communication strategy – just get in touch!

Scientia Scripta is a science communications and copy writing company based in Manchester, UK. Find out more about what we do and how we could help you.

 

Image credit: http://bit.ly/1gkTcZ1.

 

Filed under: science writing,Tips | By Deborah on May 21, 2014 at 7:08 am

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