(Very) Basic principles of effective science communication and “the Steven Spielberg test”

(originally published at www.MyLabYourLab.com)
OK, many of you might be thinking: “I am a great scientist doing interesting science that speaks for itself, why should I worry about how I communicate it”?

A couple of similar recent discussions with other scientists and my own need to prepare a talk on a completely new topic brought back one of my most mind-stopping experiences as a scientist. Just minutes before giving an invited talk at the Cedar Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, I thought I knew exactly how it would go, what I was going to say, what they will likely ask me. Then, I get introduced to… Steven Spielberg who unexpectedly had dropped by for a visit. He shakes my hand, looks into my eyes and then Spielberg asks: So, tell me about your research?”…

Yet, I think one can be prepared to get anybody, Steven Spielberg, one’s grandmother, or an expert audience, excited about their science. I promise it will pay off! See what I think are some basic principles of effective science communication.

Still wonder Why do it? Because it is essential in order to:

  • raise awareness/spread the word
  • rally the troops
  • secure support

While all these reasons work for other professions, they might be even more important for the success of scientists and their science, who depend a lot on the favorable outside impression they are able to create about their science. “Making science understandable” was one of the three main goals proposed at the recent 2010 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting: “Bridging Science & Society”, along with making science beneficial, and helping society rediscover excitement for science http://news.aaas.org/2010/

When should one do it? All the time!

Whether you are trying to explain to your family why you need to miss yet another family reunion, or communicating with the president of a foundation, to the proposal reviewers, giving a presentation at a conference, meeting a potential employer, etc., etc. Who knows? you may even ran into Steven Spielberg!

How do you do it? Simple…
It all comes down to the three Aristotelian principles: Ethos, Pathos and Logos, pretty much meaning you will need to establish your credibility, share your passion, and blow them away with the logic of your presentation!

No, really how do you it? In terms of tactics, here a some basic principles I found helped me a lot:

  1. Being prepared to deliver a clear “message” at different levels. Prepare to deliver it at least three levels: a lay audience, beginner, and expert. Can you do any/all of these in under two minutes? I call this “the Steven Spielberg test.”
  2. Knowing/gauging the audience to match with the message level (guess which one I tried for Steven Spielberg?) When in doubt, mix the “beginner” with the “expert” messages, this way the presentation is not “way above everybody’s head”, nor boring to the potential experts. The best talk I have heard to this day was given by Gerald Edelman, Nobel in Medicine, while I was doing my graduate research in completely different field. Yes, I was (am) not a neuroscientist, but during his talk I felt I “understood” everything he said, yet in retrospect a lot of it was above my head. It took me listening and giving many, many presentations to finally begin to understand Edelman’s subtle mastery: he had so skilfully blended the message for a mixed level audience while delivering it following the next two basic priciples…
  3. Expressing the message in a logical manner. No matter how disparate the elements might be (say you have to skip a couple of years of experiments in between), find ways to logically connect the parts. And make sure you close any loop before closing the talk/presentation, even if it that may mean highlighting that at the present level of knowledge you can’t close a specific loop yet, which is the best reason to keep researching… that will score you points rather subtract! (or distract)
  4. Showing enthusiasm/passion for the subject. If the speaker is not excited about it, nobody will! In my mind, successful scientists are not that different from… rock stars! For the sake of the audience, they need to be excited about performing a popular song even if it is the thousandth time they are doing it. The nice thing is that if you can compose “great songs” and be passionate about sharing them, sooner or later they become very popular, and you become very well liked, maybe famous…

Think about yourself sitting with your audience: would you wonder: “why am I wasting my time listening to this speaker who does not seem to want to talk about the subject or does not seem to care about me being able to follow it?” Would you put yourself to sleep? If you need to – especially in the beginning – practice while keeping time (or other imposed limits, e.g., page/space limit), ask for honest feedback (unemotionally consider it!) and keep improving…

If you manage to get people to understand and get excited (most times these are related!) about your scientific subject, wonderful things will happen: they will offer you support or a new job, will want to collaborate with you, invite you to speak somewhere else, maybe make a movie about you or it?

I will come back in other posts with more details about what I learned enhances oral/slide presentations or a grant proposals. Also, I hope others will share their tips with us!


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