The Secrets of Good Science Communication: telling stories that matter with Craig Cormick
All good scientists know that performing their research is only half the battle – the other half is figuring out how to communicate their results in a way that will translate into real-world impact.
Dr Craig Cormick is one of Australia’s leading science communicators and the author of our recent release, The Science of Communicating Science: The Ultimate Guide. In this edited extract from the book he shares some of his hot tips for effective science communication.
I am often asked, “What is the secret to good science communication?” And I say, “Just three things really – know your audience, and tell a good story.”
Then people say, “But that’s only two things. Have you forgotten one?”
And I say, “Yes. Most people forget the third thing. That is being really clear on what your communication objective is.”
Of course, there is a lot more to good science communication – but if you can get those three things right then you will get most of the way there.
Over the past few decades there has been an enormous amount of research into effective science communication – although unfortunately it is not always accessible or easily understandable. If only there were a book that distilled all that data into plain English, right? Well luckily there now is, and here are some of the key tips.
1. Know your audience
That sounds pretty straight forward, I know, but it can actually be quite difficult, particularly when you are trying to communicate with people who are not part of your own ‘tribe’ and who don’t think like you.
Take climate change – we all know there are some people who don’t believe in it, but do you understand why they don’t believe in it? Or those opposed to infant vaccination, or those who don’t believe in evolution even.
Attitudes are often shaped by people’s worldviews – and if their worldview is that big governments and big companies can’t be trusted then people are likely to be opposed to science and technologies developed by big companies (such as GM foods), regardless of whether they understand the science behind it or not.
And attitudes that were not based on facts and logic cannot then be influenced by facts and logic.
If you can understand the worldviews that drive different people’s attitudes, you can frame communication messages that align with those worldviews. For instance, if a climate change denier has a worldview that is based on the benefits of industrialisation and economic development, you will need to avoid threatening that worldview in your messages. Instead perhaps talk about the industrial and economic benefits that come from growing new sustainable industries as a first step, and then seek change in tiny steps.
2. Tell a good story
Yes, but what is a good story exactly? It doesn’t have to be about something good – but it does have to be a story.
And stories that most resonate with us are those we can relate to in some way, that are about people like us. Scientists have put people in MRI machines and told them stories and watched the way their brains light up. Stories use emotion and trigger our own emotions. Stories have power.
It is as if we are programmed to accept data and facts that are wrapped in a story better than we can accept data by itself.
Again, showing someone data about climate change is less impactful than showing them a story of the human impacts on an individual farmer, or suburban grocery shopper.
You might ask, what about telling the story of the impact on a person in Greenland, but if you look at point one – know your audience – you will realise that it is important for a story to be about someone like the person you are telling the story to.
You may have heard some manager talking about the need for an effective ‘corporate narrative’. They are just using jargon to say “Tell a good story”.
3. Know your communication objective
The biggest thing about an effective objective is that it is realistic. You want to convince the entire population that a particular research project has great merit and should be endorsed and funded by everyone? Hmmm – maybe a bit ambitious. Not impossible, but I’d ask what resources you have, over what time you are hoping to achieve that, and does the research outcome align with people’s values.
If it was for a better medical application that would benefit everybody then there is a chance you could achieve that. If it was for a niche application that only benefited a few directly – I’d be a less certain you could achieve it.
Good objectives are SMART. That is: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely.
Look at your communication objective and see if it ticks each of those five boxes well. Then go and find someone who does not think like you and ask them if ticks the boxes as well as you thought.
Don’t be shy of refining your ideas, as they’ll probably get better each time you rework them.
As I said before, best practice science communication is based on research and data – just like good science. And using that research is a good way to be more effective in your communication efforts.
Dr Craig Cormick is one of Australia’s leading science communicators, having worked for the CSIRO, Questacon and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. He is the former President of the Australian Science Communicators and a winner of the Unsung Hero of Science Communication.
This article is an edited extract from The Science of Communicating Science. Visit our website to find out more about this title or purchase your copy.
Craig Cormick is also the author of Ned Kelly: Under the Microscope.