Tips for effective #scicomm

Lindy Orthia and Rachel Morgain

How do you get people to care about your science? Is anybody listening?

Science communication is more than great charisma or fun writing. Context matters. So we produced this infographic of 5 mnemonics to help.

If you want to know more about any of the 5, read on.

Click image to download or find it at slideshare here.

Orthia & Morgain Scicomm tool

1. Basics: The 6 Ws and an H

Researchers from Australia and New Zealand asked science communication experts to list the most important things sci comm students need to learn.

Their top responses are a great starting point for scientists venturing into public communication:

Who? Think about who you’re communicating with – your audience or communication partners. What do you know about them? What don’t you know? Use language appropriate for them, respect them, and build trust.

Why? Know why you’re there – your aims – and why your communication partners are there, which might be different. Acknowledge these openly. Use this awareness to frame your approach.

What? There’s probably tons of content you could share on your topic, but you can’t include it all, and trying will ruin good comms. When choosing what to include, consider what your audience already knows, what is most relevant to them and how they’ll use the information.

How? If you have a choice, choose a medium (e.g. television, social media, community meeting) appropriate to your audience, content and aims. Understand your medium’s conventions and limitations. Seek training if you want it.

When? Where? What’s going on here right now that might matter? Don’t ignore the impact of timing and location.

Which other contextual factors? Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum – you are communicating with people who already know, think and feel things about you and the topic. Think deeply about this context, especially the factors outlined in 2 & 3.

2. Expectations: The 5 ‘I’s

Lindy Orthia uses the 5 ‘I’s when thinking about how science is represented in the media for her teaching and research. But it’s also a way of brainstorming how your comms partners might be thinking about you and what they expect of you while communicating:

Identities. Science involves people. How your audience perceives those people (including you) can affect your communication. Are scientists scary, heartless, friendly, altruistic? How might their preconceptions and the new impressions you make affect your message and relationship?

Institutions. All of us have pre-existing views about the trustworthiness of different institutions where science is done, connected with their aims, constraints and past performance. How might this affect your relationship building?

Ideologies. Not everyone responds to science-related ideologies in the same way. Reductionism, biological determinism, objectivity – even something as seemingly innocuous as ‘science is great’ – are ideologies. Are these impacting your connection with your audience? Do you have a larger aim to convert your audience (subconsciously or otherwise)?

Issues. Some science topics are controversial, and people will already have strong opinions about them that require care if you are to really connect. If you’re communicating about climate change, GM or nanotech you may want to seek specialist communication advice.

Information. First impressions of you might well be based on all of the above, before you even get to communicating your information of interest. It’s naïve to think you can impart information without thinking about the rest.

3. Broader contexts: The SPIICE of science

The SPIICE of science can help you take a bigger picture view of the contextual elements at play. All of these affect people’s general perceptions of science, and therefore your communication:

Social. The ‘S’ is about society’s structures and networks. Think about the place science occupies within society and how people feel about that generally. How does science shape the ways society is organised and run? How is science in turn shaped by that?

Political. The ‘P’ is all about power. How have political imperatives from governments constrained or enabled the science in your field? How might micro-power inequalities be influencing the ways you communicate, and even how you developed your ideas?

Institutional. The first ‘I’ element asks how the institutions in which science is undertaken and shared shape scientific research, and public perceptions about it. How might the science you have undertaken have been impacted by your institutional context?

Ideological. The second ‘I’ asks how ideological values, such as competition or egalitarianism, environmentalism or market forces, shape science, both in general and for you. Are you acknowledging your ideological lens?

Cultural. The ‘C’ is for culture: habits, values, and expectations of how communication will proceed, the language that will be used, and what roles we each play.

Economic. Last but not least, the ‘E’ refers to the unavoidable fact that science costs money, from taxpayers, donors or profits. The economic bottom line will always be present somewhere in communication about science.

4. and 5. Outcomes: AEIOU x 2

Australian science communicators have come up with two mnemonics that can help you think about why you’re doing public communication in the first place. Both use the formulation AEIOU to list those potential outcomes.

Outcomes for publics

In 2003, three sci comm researchers summarised the desirable outcomes of science communication as fostering individuals’ personal Awareness of science, their Enjoyment of it, Interest in it, Opinions about it, or Understanding of it.

Outcomes for professionals

More recently, Rachel Morgain developed this version of AEIOU, aimed at encouraging scientists to engage more actively with specific stakeholders, external collaborators and governments, rather than just a general ‘public’:

Acknowledgement. Acknowledging partners means celebrating your collaborative networks and strengthening your ties.

Exchange. Communication isn’t all one way – it enables you to exchange ideas that might reshape your thinking.

Influence. If you want your research to have an impact on policy and public action, you must get involved in engagement beyond the ivory tower.

Opportunities. Engagement with other stakeholders can lead to new research ideas and funding opportunities.

Uptake. Getting people involved in your research at an early stage is the most direct pathway to having it applied.