Image: Dr Jesse Shore addresses the audience during The Storytelling of Science as part of the Australian Science Communicators conference in Brisbane, 2 February, 2014. Credit: Jessica Saxton.
Here we are, in the information age, with greater access to news, information and stories from across the globe than ever before but for some reason 30 second cat videos are often still getting more hits than PhD papers.
Science’s relevance spreads to every person, animal and plant in every corner of the earth and sometimes beyond, but unfortunately, in many cases these studies and theories are so in depth and require such a deep background knowledge to understand that when people talk about them they tend to encounter the all-too-familiar glassy-eyed response, where they can actually see their subject’s interest slipping away before them.
However, scientific communication doesn’t have to be reserved for the dusty aisles of a university library or the black and white pages of an encyclopedia.
“The way I see it, scientific communities are under an obligation to create a flood of scientific stories, so the information is out there and accessible,”
–Dr Jesse Shore.
Effective scientific communication can bridge the gap between the scientific community and wider public, bringing the stories of science to the people.
It doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’ research or theories, or resorting to loud bangs and smoke shows either, it’s about creating engaging stories that form a connection with the audience.
In a triple anniversary celebration event, Australian Science Communicators (ASC14) held a panel discussion focusing on the effective communication of scientific theories, research and findings at State Library of Queensland’s The Edge in Brisbane.
Welcoming guest speakers Dr Jesse Shore, Lynne Malcolm, Professor Tim Flannery, Professor Jenny Graves, Professor Peter Adams and Dr Andrew Stephenson to celebrate 60 years of the Australian Academy of Science, 50 years of the ABC Science Unit and 20 years of the Australian Science Communicators, audience members were invited to engage in a question and answer session surrounding the present and the future of the storytelling of science.
“It’s about nurturing our sense of wonder,”
– Lynne Malcolm.
Guest speakers discussed various channels of communication and storytelling techniques that could be used to build interest in, and expand, the scientific community.
The result? By conveying scientific concepts and findings into language that will engage and captivate audiences, scientific communicators can effectively bridge the divide between the scientific community and wider public.
1. Make it Engaging
It’s about connecting audiences with the adventures of science; the chase, the ideas, their implications on our society and our lives, or the lives of others, the quest for a better understanding of our universe.
One of the key points shared by ABC Science’s Lynne Malcolm was the importance of finding personal connection and emotion within the story.
Through conducting on-site interviews with scientists, researchers and people affected by the science, Ms Malcolm manages to capture the human struggle and achievements tied inextricably to scientific moments.
Beginning his career as a geologist, Dr Jesse Shore said he started looking into scientific communication in order to ‘get a date’.
He found when telling people what he did for a living, he encountered the same glazed eyes and wandering attention that so many scientific communications inspire in audiences today.
“Once I learned to explain the science in an engaging form, it became easy to share the concepts and theories, and hold their attention,” Dr Shore explained.
He recommends to all scientists wishing to improve their storytelling and communication to get involved in improvisational theatre classes, as he did.
Professor Tim Flannery discussed the nature of the scientific endeavor as an element in scientific communications, utilising the excitement and adventure of the quest to capture audience attention and take people on a journey of discovery.
“It’s about staying focused on the message, not getting carried away with every detail. Focus on building a story that will engage with people, ” he said.
While using the chronological events surrounding a certain theory, field trip or discovery as a linear storyline the audience has the ability to ‘join’ the team in their journey.
In this case, it’s important to align the quest with the audience, not to ‘dumb it down’ but to make the information accessible through language and again focusing on the story rather than every detail.
2. Make it Accessible
Accessibility refers to making the story not only physically available but also intellectually. It’s important in any scientific communication to share certain key details and indicators so that the audience can recognise the significance of certain findings along the way and feel that they are a part of the discovery.
Just as important is the use of language; trying to view the story and information through the eyes of the audience, considering their language, culture, education level and their typical use of media.
In order to utilise language effectively it is again important to understand your audience and remember what is it you are trying to say. It is far more effective to build an engaging and interesting story, presenting ideas and theories linked to scientific movements than to present every detail.
Mathematician Peter Adams demonstrated the importance of effective communication regarding statistics and the uncertain nature of science. The aim is to build the scope of scientific communities through making science accessible to a number of audiences.
Effective use of language will allow communicators to convey the excitement and passion felt by the scientists involved in the research or discovery to wider audiences so they can join them on the quest.
3. The Next Gen
One thing each of the guest speakers at this year’s ASC Storytelling of Science agreed on was the importance of cultivating scientific interest and curiosity with younger generations through the creation of engaging and accessible scientific communication.
“They are the next generation of audiences, scientists and scientific communicators,” Ms Malcolm explained. “We need to begin to engage them in the field now.”
Dr Andrew Stephenson shared his experiences using analogies when working with primary school children around Australia, presenting in-depth scientific concepts to rapturous awe.
“This was quantum mechanics stuff, and they were soaking it up and asking for more!” he said.
“Just think of how many stories are waiting to be told, from all the facets of science,”
– Dr Andrew Stephenson.
As with any effective communication, the key is to see the topic through the eyes of the audience and put the information into terms they will understand. This may be through the use of diagrams, analogies or activities that demonstrate certain principles or theories.
Supporting an interest in science at a young age encourages future interests, where they may choose to seek out scientific information or be compelled to join the field themselves.
4. It’s Okay to be Wrong
“Science is not about the quest for truth, you can never prove a scientific theory to be right, but you can prove it to be wrong,” said Professor Tim Flannery.
Therefore, science is more about the quest for what is false, eliminating what can be proven to be wrong to build a model reflecting reality, and the continuous quest to narrow it down, getting ever closer to actuality.
However, this doesn’t mean that being proven wrong is a bad thing. Quite the contrary it seems, according to the ASC14 guest speakers.
Indeed, any theory presented can at very least build discussion, wonder, interest and even inspire further research.
Biologist Professor Jenny Graves stressed the importance of taking the risk in presenting findings and communicating theories despite the possibility you might be proven wrong.
After all, it’s all about building the communication surrounding science and creating interest.
Each day brings new ideas, scientific theories and discoveries and the implications and impact on our environment and society. Each day brings triumphs, trials and scientific adventure from across the globe.
As the study of our universe and everything within it, science and scientific research is relatable to every man, woman and child on this earth.
The gap between the world of science and the greater public can only be bridged by effective communication; engaging interest, sparking interest in young generations and providing discussion and inspiration for further research.
Communications is the key.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.
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