November 18, 2014

#SfN14 Day 3: How to Effectively Communicate Your Science to the Public

This post is part of my series on the 2014 Society for Neuroscience annual meeting. You can read other posts in this series here. I’m also live-tweeting some sessions @GainesOnBrains. Join the conversation at #SfN14.

My positively GORGEOUS new cell scarf from Artologica (Michele Banks)!
Check out her Etsy store for this and other incredible art!
Talk about exhaustion. I didn’t get a chance to write yesterday because I was too busy meeting Internet friends at #sfnbanter. In case anyone was wondering, all the people on Twitter are real!

In sleep research, we have this term called “social jetlag.” It’s aptly named. I’m feelin’ it big time this morning.

Yesterday morning, I attended the professional development workshop called “How to Effectively Communicate Your Science to the Public.” Panelists included science communicator Elaine Snell, AAAS Director of Public Engagement Tiffany Lohwater, author Jane Nevins, and Columbia University professor and NeuWrite host Stuart Firestein.

Here are some tips and tricks that particularly stood out to me:

  • If you’re a scientist and concerned about how your research is being relayed to the public, remember that you can always work with your university’s press office to write up your press release.
  • In a similar vein, if you’re a scientist speaking to journalists about your work, make sure the journalist knows that they are free to contact you before publication to ensure accuracy.
  • Website design is super important! If someone wants to learn about something, chances are they’re going to Google it. Maybe you’re interested in getting involved in science communication but not comfortable being in the public eye; use your talents in web design to make the dissemination of information visually appealing.
  • Don’t think of science communication as “dumbing down” the science. If your audience is seeking out science news, they’re not dumb. Create a dialogue about science, not a lecture. (Depending on your platform, there are different ways to do this.) A lay reader is a leisure reader, so they probably have a specific reason for deciding to kick back and spend time reading your work.
  • Scientists aren’t trained to talk about the ‘bottom line” first. In fact, if you want to know the conclusions of a research project, read the last sentence of a journal article. But readers want you to get to the point up front. Don’t dawdle.
  • When you’re writing for lay audiences, get in a one-on-one frame of mind. Imagine what their questions and concerns would be about a topic. And certainly don’t be shy about throwing around a draft to friends and family to review.
  • Don’t tell a reader that you’re relaying a complex topic to them. It’s a turn-off. Only specify complexity in the sense that there’s an impediment to studying and understanding a complex system. (An example of this would be that Alzheimer’s can only be definitively determined in post-mortem issue.)
  • Watch your headlines. Recent ones like “How Science Goes Wrong” and “Trouble in the Lab” only work to undermine science.
  • How do you get your readers to continue reading your piece, especially if you’ve given them the message up front and want to relay specifics? Start a narrative, and don’t finish it until the very last sentence.
  • If you’re looking for a speaker to communicate with a general audience, try’s Find a Neuroscientist database. Better yet, if there’s a specific line of research you’re interested in, try contacting the PI. Perhaps they, or even a graduate student, would be interested in speaking about their work to a lay audience. This would be a great opportunity for anyone involved.

I’m interested in figuring out better ways to open a dialogue between my readers and myself. I’m active on Twitter, but certainly not everyone who finds my page is on Twitter.  I do try to make myself available via e-mail, despite my facetious e-mail policy. If you have any ideas as I work through this myself, please reach out to me!

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