In this post I am going to share with you a few things I have picked up over my time as a PhD to do with SciComm- hope it helps! Please feel free to comment with any of your own tips 🙂
I have become quite good at talking to the public about not just my work, but science in general. I think a lot of this has come from generally talking about my project and day to day lab life with friends and family.
My sister is a PhD doing Chemistry, my Dad works in science targeted for high school students, and my Mum has basic science- In other words they understand little if anything about what I am doing! This means when I want to talk to them about what I have been doing at work for the last few months, I have to talk in a less-jargon filled way. Without realising it, this has helped me to talk about my science in a more accessible way!
So, without further ado, here are some of my SciComm tips:
Most importantly: Know your audience
Who is your audience? What will they already know? you should tailor your presentation/ talk/ poster to them. If they are kids make the science really accessible think about adding demonstrations and videos, if they are other scientists are they from the same area from you? if not you may need to give some more background information.
Talking to the general Public
Lose the Jargon
Just remove it all. Fancy Jargon, and the jargon you don’t even really think of as jargon. By this I mean words like ‘compounds’ and ‘pathway’- the words we tend to use on a day to day basis when talking to other scientists.
I recently did a SciComm workshop with Dr Emily Grossman (an amazing female scientist making science accessible to everyone follow her @DrEmilyGrossman ) and she made us do a quick, but very effective task: Find a friend (preferably non-science-y) and explain your research to them in under 2 minutes. Afterwards get them to ‘criticise’ your talk- what didn’t they understand? What did they like? How could you improve the talk? Repeat the process with them a few times. You will be amazed how much you can improve your talk!!
Aliens are in the audience. How would you explain your work to them?
My Dad said this to me this years ago- the point is as a scientist you can often get caught up in science, and forget how specialised you have become. No, not everyone will know what a gene is- some will for sure, but you need to target those who don’t. Think of science talks you have been in the audience of in the past- think of the ‘bad’ talks- how did they lose you? It was most likely when they didn’t fully explain some complex science before moving onto showing experimental data.
A colleague at work told me about this- use analogies to explain trickier concepts. For example “I work on a metabolic pathway and I added a transcription factor to improve flow through the pathway.” This is full of jargon- and even if I explained all the ideas and terms, it wouldn’t come across well. So instead, with a nice picture of a simple pathway behind me on a screen, I said “I added a transcription factor to increase flow through the pathway, think of the pathway as a network of pipes and taps. At the moment the tap is turned on but is just dripping, I enabled the tap to be turned on full“. I’d like to say I thought of this analogies all by myself- I did not. Don’t be afraid to note down and later use analogies used by others.
Don’t try to tell them EVERYTHING
You need to try and strike a balance- yes you want the audience to know what you are doing, but they don’t need to know it all! What are the most important areas of your work? Why?
I find thinking in reverse helps sometimes, ask yourself:
What do you want the audience to take away from your talk? These are the main points you want to cover in your talk. Then think of the background needed to understand these concepts… that’s the beginning…
Think of your presentation as a story
I find this quite tricky to do- thinking of my PhD project as a story. But, I at least try to give my presentation a beginning, a middle and a end. If you are really imaginative you can also think of who the ‘good guy’ in your project is, and who is the ‘bad guy’? Think of your project as the plot- what are the tasks you have to overcome? The puzzles to solve? and what is the ending? This will help to make your talk exciting, and keep the audience interested.
Use a catchy title
My project title is: “Can Tomatoes toughen skin? Exploring plant stilbenes and healthy aging” although interesting (at least to me!) its not the most exciting of titles not to mention that most people won’t know what a stilbene is- so there isn’t much impact either.
Try thinking of a question to do with your project- would this have more impact? How about a statement about a set of your most exciting results? This would make a good title- and starting slide- grabbing the interest of the audience from the start, and making them want to find out the answer.
For my latest talk I changed my title to “Could tomatoes be the future of healthy skin?” this could still be improved, but is a definite improvement!
Talking to other scientists
Most of the points above are still relevant when talking to other scientists about your work. Consider your audience- what is their scientific background? Too many scientists when giving talks and poster presentations assume that everyone they are talking to will know the same amount as them. Not true!! By the time you are PhD level you have become pretty specialist in your area- there will be few others who know the same amount as you. You still need to explain the things you think are basic- for example my project is based on both plant science and cell biology. When giving a presentation about my metabolic pathway, the general phenylpropanoid pathway, to a room of plant scientists specialising in metabolism- they will understand the basics of a pathway: transcription factors ect- but they most likely won’t know my pathway, the genes involved, where its products are made in the plant. So you still need to give the background info. Don’t launch straight into the data.
There are a lot of scientists out there- and a lot give very bad presentations (I bet you have sat through a few). When designing your presentation/ or poster think of the bad ones- make sure you don’t do these mistakes! and think of the good ones- what did they do? What could you incorporate into your presentation?
Here are the top things I think about:
- Talk outline slide- I like to do this, it gives the audience an idea of what is to come.
- Few words, more images. A classic error is too much text on a slide. Text will distract the audience- and they will spend more time reading than listening.
- Make the images big and highlight the important stuff. Have a PCR image you are showing? Draw an arrow/ put a box around the interesting band.
- Use animations. Not all the whizzy, spinning animations- but the one that allows you to click and show the info you want when you want. Try starting slides with minimum information showing which you then add to- this can help to not swamp the audience with too much information, and can help with the flow of the talk.
- Do a summary slide- what are the main points you want the audience to take home?
Posters are the main way to communicate your science with other scientists, so you want to make sure that your poster is good!
- Take your time making a poster- don’t make it a few days before the conference. You can always tell! It will be the poster with too much text, no flow…
- Reduce the text down. Give enough information for people to understand your work, but no more. You want the poster to be there as the presentation background, and you will provide most of the information by talking.
- Make the text big! Make the font size readable- too many posters use text which is far too small.
- Really think about the colour choice: Make sure the text is readable on the background. For images- especially fluorescence, think about colours used: remember there may be some colour blind scientists around.
I believe that good SciComm is essential. I recently read “The Angry Chef: Bad Science and the Truth About Healthy Eating” By Anthony Warner, and one thing he wrote really stood out to me:
If there was more effective science communication, it would make it harder for pseudoscience to flourish.
This is so true on so many levels. It only takes slight mis-communication for science to be twisted, and the message to the general public to be skewed. Making science more accessible to the public is crucial to help understanding, and remove a lot of the ‘public perceptions’ behind science and scientists.
I hope some of my tips will help! What tips would you recommend others for other Scicommers? Let me know!!