Science, by definition, is a very methodical discipline. You come up with a theory, devise an experiment to test it, record your findings and then draw some conclusions. If you are lucky, this results in a publication or two, maybe even a patent, whereupon you briefly bask in the glory before heading back to the drawing board to begin the process anew.
Scientists also love giving things lengthy and convoluted labels, whether it is the biological name of a species or the latest chemical developed to speed up an industrial process. This was optimal about a century or so ago, when there were probably more scientists than identifiers and the entire observational world was nascent, untapped and ready to be unleashed. In fact, we probably have more chemicals in our bathroom cabinets today than the average chemistry laboratory did at the turn of the 20th century.
Fast forward to the present and every branch of the scientific world seems to have exploded: materials are stronger but lighter; structures keep getting taller; nanotechnology keeps making things smaller; and medical breakthroughs feel like they are happening on an hourly basis. According to Jim Carroll, author of “Ready, Set, Done: How to Innovate When Faster is the New Fast,” the current pace of progress translates to the production of “…as much new information every six months as was produced in the first 300,000 years of human existence.” Furthermore, Carroll goes on to say that “… all of the knowledge we have today is but 1% of the knowledge we will have in 2050.”
So how do we process it all? How do we ensure that non-scientists benefit from this knowledge as much as experts in their respective fields? Most importantly, how do we spark and maintain enthusiasm in science, especially during the all-important formative years of children and young adults? This is the point where the rigidity of method gives way to the art of science.
At first glance, this statement is an oxymoron. How could something so quantitative and objective be treated in a manner that is, by its very nature, a matter of personal perspective? The answer is quite simple, even if its practice is not: “communication.”
We have all had that one reaction, whether perusing the internet, attending a public lecture or reading through the impossibly folded pamphlet shoved inside our medication packets: “Huh?” That unmistakable, head-scratching response to what should have been a rather straightforward explanation of an issue with more complex underpinnings. More often than not, those two premises tend to get switched around, where the question put forward is simple but its answer much more complicated.
As stewards of the empirical world, it is our duty to do our best to impart our knowledge in a way that is simplified and coherent, without sacrificing the salient points of the topic being described. This is known as “distilling the message,” and it is a much harder task to accomplish than it appears. Masters of this technique include Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”), Alan Alda and Lauren Worley. Each has a unique (and sometimes humorous) way of delivering their messages to the general public, which is as entertaining as it is riveting.
How do they do it? What skills are required to be an effective science communicator? Should not everyone who is involved in the myriad fields of science be capable of transmitting their findings in such an efficient and effective manner?
Unfortunately, not every scientist can be a deGrasse Tyson or Nye, any more than every painter can be a Rembrandt or Picasso. That being said, it does not mean the vast majority of us cannot improve our communication skills. We just need to be aware of a few basic principles that can generally be applied irrespective of the medium being used:
- Know your audience. The importance of this point cannot be overstated. There are many of our peers who become so used to dealing with each other that the jargon of their work permeates their vocabulary to the point where it is expected to be universally understood. Nothing is more off-putting than being made to feel incompetent or alienated, which is exactly what this kind of language inadvertently leads to. It may seem obvious, but presenting the slides of a university-level lecture to a group of elementary school students will not yield the same results. Yet this happens time and again, with the same information being recycled — irrespective of the target audience — in order to save time and energy.
- Be minimalistic. A little can go a long way, especially when designing a presentation. Having less text and more illustrations will shift the focus towards the speaker as they elaborate on the points being made. This also applies to animations and 3-D effects, which can be very distracting to those who are trying to pay attention to what is actually being said. While writing, the facts should be presented in a succinct and coherent way without too much superfluity (case in point).
- Reinforce your credibility. The mere appearance of credibility can have a profound effect on audience attention acuity. Apart from expertise in a particular field (which speaks for itself), citing statistics and results of various studies — related to the topic being discussed — can elevate that perception and, in turn, audience engagement.
- Collective A.D.D. According to Miller’s Law, the average human holds up to seven thoughts at any time, plus or minus two. In other words, any given person in an audience can have anywhere between five and nine topics running through their minds at any given moment. Effectively, this means the communicator is in constant competition within a “thought jungle.” The best way to ensure success is by being dynamic: the communicator must always be ready to fine-tune their message or innovate new ways to keep the audience engaged. One way to do this is by asking questions that promote discussion, ultimately leading to the point that the presenter is trying to make. Another is by devising short exercises that can be executed during the course of a presentation. If writing is the medium of communication, breaking up the piece into smaller sections or shorter paragraphs can also help immensely.
- We are over here, Professor! Although this applies mainly to communication in the form of oral/visual presentations, it is still very noteworthy. Too many times, a presenter will set themselves up on a podium, initiate their PowerPoint™ file and proceed to read each slide line by monotonous line. This results in the same reaction an audience would experience when faced with a speech reader who never looks up from the text in front of them. Eye contact with and body alignment towards different sections of an audience are crucial in making them feel a sense of importance and belonging, which in turn maintains their attention at high enough levels to not disengage. Another effective way of doing this is by walking back and forth across the stage, should its size and audio equipment availability permit.
- Make it relatable. The one skill that seems to separate good communicators from exceptional ones is their ability to draw analogies between seemingly abstract concepts and everyday, recognizable events. Michio Kaku executes this flawlessly in his explanations of quantum physics and cosmology by turning complicated concepts such as the expansion of the universe into an inflating balloon, or the emergence of multiverses into a garden of budding vegetation. Once the target audience can make those connections, what once seemed alien suddenly becomes familiar and therefore piques an otherwise sedentary curiosity.
Whether you are explaining the fundamentals of neurosurgery or simply outlining the benefits of reducing the national carbon footprint, employing a few effective communication techniques could go a long way.
Let these principles be your palette. Turn your science into art.
Dr Bassam Shuhaibar is a Program Manager and associate researcher at the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR). He has given numerous talks on a wide range of scientific topics to audiences ranging from kindergarten to university students and beyond. Dr Shuhaibar is also frontman and co-founder of local rock band “The Afterthought.”
By Bassam N. Shuhaibar, Ph.D.