People like stories. Scientists have all heard the suggestion to communicate your science as a story when communicating with the public. But what about to fellow scientists? Do we then get the dry, impersonal version of your science? Unfortunately, it often turns out that way, but established science communicators are now suggesting science stories be used for communication with scientists as well. Scientists are people too and they also like stories (whether they admit it or not).
I recently attended the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii and participated in a couple of great science communication workshops. Leaders of these workshops included Randy Olsen, Ari Daniel Shapiro, and Christie Wilcox, all prominent voices in science communication. Not only did I learn ways to communicate science to non-scientists, but also how important it is to be a good science communicator at scientific meetings (like OSM) where scientists are communicating with each other. Some scientists scoff at the idea of science as a story, but all people (scientists or not) are more engaged with information when it is presented in a narrative form. Here are some tips I learned throughout the week:
1. Use Narrative Structure
In Randy Olsen’s Storymaker Workshop, he presented a format called the “ABT” or “And, But, and Therefore” template. This template is crucial for presenting information in a narrative structure rather than the factual structure of “And, And, And” that quickly bores people. For example, if someone is telling you about their weekend and they say “First we did this, and then we did this, and then we did this…” it will slowly start to sound like “blah, blah, blah” in your head. If they use the narrative structure, however, you will be more engaged in what they are saying: “First we did this, but then suddenly this happened, so then we had to change the plan and do this.” It is important to note that narrative structure is not about “dumbing down” or changing the science that you are presenting. Instead, it is the way to present it so that people will actually listen and learn what you are saying. After this workshop, I listened to many talks that I was excited to see but, unfortunately, were a list of “This is the background, and these were the methods, and these are the results….”. I was completely bored by the time they got to the conclusions and learned nothing. There were other talks, however, that did use narrative structure such as: “We studied this and found this pattern, but it is different than anything we’ve seen before, therefore we studied it further…”. With this structure, the audience is engaged with the speaker and is waiting to hear what they have to say next. Those were the talks that I remember now and that I actually learned from what they said.
2. Use Improv Training to be Personable
In addition to learning the ABT, the workshop also had a session of improv training from a Groundlings Improv Teacher: Samantha Roy. Most scientists are more introverted, including myself, so I was nervous about this activity. I also wasn’t quite sure what improv had to do with science communication. We started off with a few easy exercises like “Passing the Alphabet.” We then moved on to an exercise called “Last Letter” where you had to listen to the word the person before you said, and say a word that starts with the last letter of their word. This was exercise forced us to get out of our own heads and stop planning exactly what we are going to say, but instead listen and be present in the moment. This helps you be more personable as a speaker. If the audience sees you as a person, they will be more engaged in your presentation than if you walk up to the microphone and act like a robot scientist. Speakers at the conference that were in the moment were much more effective at communicating their science than speakers that recited a memorized script while standing in front of their slides. Again, this tool is not to goof around on stage and be unprofessional, but instead it gives you a way to effectively communicate your science so that the audience will listen and hear what you are saying.
3. Use Stories to Make Your Science Relatable
Sometimes in science it is difficult for people to relate to your research topic, especially if it is an organism or process that people are unfamiliar with. Incorporating stories into your scientific presentations can help the audience engage with what you are saying and therefore really learn from your talk. One way to do this is by adding the excitement of discovery into your talk. From childhood, everyone loves to hear about a good adventure. Most of us scientists were initially drawn to the sense of exploration that science provides. Let this excitement show in your talk and the audience will share in the adventure with you and really listen to what you have to say. Another way to use stories to improve your communication is to bring the audience up or down to the scale of your study organism or process. For example, it might be difficult for most people to relate to a planktonic organism, but if you bring the audience down to the scale of what this organism experiences and struggles with everyday, plankton may become more relatable. These stories should not be childish as it might seem from descriptions of adventures and shrinking sizes. Instead, if subtly incorporated, these stories can dramatically improve the effectiveness of your presentation.
4. Slides Should be the Supplement, not Focus
There is an unfortunate trend within scientific presentations to try and have PowerPoint slides speak for us. In Ari Daniel Shapiro’s workshop, he gave us a real life example of how distracting slides can be and how they can take away from the presentation. While he was telling us about his background, he had a slide behind him with sentences popping up such as “Don’t read this,” “Pay attention to the person speaking,” etc. The entire audience was reading the slides and laughing at the jokes written rather than listening to what Ari was telling us. Some may think text is important so the audience can read the main points. This, however, is a cop-out. If the main points of the research are written out on slides, the speaker is no longer a presenter, but simply a reader. In this case the audience will read the text on their own and tune out the speaker. It is important that you are the focus of your talk, not your slides. People relate better to other people. If you make your presentation more human and more personable, you will be more effective at communicating your point.