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Understanding the Art of Science Communication

Published on May 20, 2020
Science communication experts share tips on getting the most out of your communications plan.

"Your work no longer speaks for itself. The world speaks for and of your work," warns Sree Sreenivasan. It is sobering news for any scientist or researcher who's seen their work misrepresented in the media or by decision-makers. Sreenivasan is an expert science communicator and thought leader in social media. He tells webinar audiences. "Science is made for social media, and social media is made for science. But the world at large is overrun by misinformation, fake news, and charlatans. You can dictate how the world sees your research by being intentional with your communications."

But what is the best strategy for sharing your findings? Paul Baltes, Director of Communications at Nebraska Medicine, says, "It's helpful to know your audience. If you're talking to a group of scientists, you might use different language than if you're engaging the public. Most people we're developing communications for don't have a lot of knowledge of science or the scientific method. We craft all of our messages at the 8th-grade level."

Laura McCallister gives similar advice. "How you talk about your science depends on the audience. If you're speaking to other members of the science community, you're welcome (and even encouraged) to talk at a high level. I have a communications background, so I ask the researchers to explain things to me in the simplest terms so that I can understand it as best as I can and explain it to others," McCallister says. She's a Research Communication Specialist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City.

McCallister says it's important to remember the human element of your research. "When I tell a researcher's story, my goal is to put a face to the research, either through those participating in the study or the teams conducting the study. If you're speaking to other members of the science community, you're welcome (and even encouraged) to talk at a high level."

McCallister gives a checklist of questions every researcher should answer when devising a communications plan: What prompted you to conduct this study? What does this study mean for patients? What is the take-away for physicians? For parents?

McCallister told us, "Not everyone understands what happens in research and how the results of that research can affect things in the future. Sometimes the researcher has a personal story about why they were inspired to conduct that specific study or focus on that specific area of science. Our goal is to paint a picture for the audience to make research easier to understand and thus appreciate hopefully."

Baltes urges scientists to start with a goal in mind. "Think about what you want to accomplish and all the different methods to accomplish that goal. If you want to activate feeling and emotion, video is the best medium. If you want to get a straightforward message across, consider written communication."

Sreenivasan advises using different social channels for various purposes. "Don't ignore LinkedIn," Sree says to use LinkedIn to develop a network of people you know, want to know, and people you should know.

"Twitter is more conversational than other platforms," Sreenivasan says. Use Twitter's hashtags to join conversations about your area of interest. "Twitter conversations can often turn into real-life meetings."

"Facebook is the world's largest social media platform." Sreenivasan advises using Facebook's tools to live Facebook Live to share live video of the behind the scenes life in your lab. "People want to connect with other people, not brands."

Instagram is a place to be yourself and have fun. Sreenivasan says we should be using Instagram Stories to share the details and the stories of people making science happen.

For more social media and messaging advice, check out the American Chemical Society's great "Scientist's Guide to Social Media." Also visit Sree Sreenivasan's science communications webinar for the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science.

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