Science communication – exercises, tools, and tips for researchers

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Medical research charities often rely upon scientists to explain their own work in a lay-friendly language their supporters understand. In this blog post, I’ve gathered exercises, tools, and tips that charities can use to help researchers communicate their work. 

The researchers your charity funds often have opportunities to explain their work to your charity’s supporters and the public at large – whether it’s at events or lab tours, for broadcast in videos or podcasts, or in interviews for the media.  

Some scientists are very good at making their work understandable. Maybe they’re clinicians who are used to speaking to the public and patients, maybe they have lots of experience in science communication, or maybe they’re just naturally gifted. 

But other scientists can need a bit more help or practice. To help with that, I’ve gathered together some science communications exercises and tips which you could pass onto the researchers funded by your charity. 

Many of these resources have been specifically designed for scientists looking to communicate their work. Almost all are freely available and easy to implement. I’ve broken them down into longer and shorter exercises, as well as a few other things to consider. So whether researchers find themselves with lots of time to think about science communication or less than an hour, there’ll be something here to help. 

Finally, some of them are suggestions from people on Twitter who responded to a couple of questions I put out – thanks all!

Exercises and tools

Here’s a few different science communication exercises, tools, and courses that you could suggest to the researchers your charity funds.

ABT method

Randy Olson goes into the ABT method in-depth in a couple of his books, including ‘Houston, We Have A Narrative’. Briefly, it’s a ‘universal narrative template’ he developed in workshops for scientists to find the underlying story in research. ABT stands for “And, But, Therefore”, and it’s basically a “fill-in-the-blanks” exercise, which will provide the very bare bones of a strong story. (Suggested by Dr Paige Jarreau)

  • Start the story with a few facts, setting out what the situation currently is. Join these facts together with AND. Then something happens (or a problem is identified). Introducing the word BUT indicates that this is the start of the real story. This then leads to the action of the story, THEREFORE, where you set out the consequences of this problem.

For example:

Epilepsy affects 600,000 people in the UK AND is often treated using anti-epileptic drugs. BUT for 30% of people with epilepsy these drugs fail to control their seizures. THEREFORE scientists are looking at new types of treatment which will work better.

Problem – Solution – Impact

Another classic way of framing research projects, which I’ve outlined in a blog post on how to write a research lay summary

  • Set out the Problem you’re aiming to solve with your research
  • Outline your Solution to that problem (ie what is your research doing to address that problem)
  • Finish with the Impact that your work could have. 

The Message Box (COMPASS SciComm)

This is a simple tool (suggested by Kathleen O’Neil) used to identify the key messages that will resonate with a chosen audience. COMPASS SciComm outline the full process on their website. In brief, after identifying the key audience you want to speak to, work out:

  • Issue – what’s the big picture?
  • Problem – what specific dimension of the issue are you addressing?
  • Solutions – what can be done to address the problem? (including your research)?
  • Benefits – who does this help and how?
  • So what? – how does this impact something your audience cares about? 

Talking Science (Greg Foot)

Science broadcaster Greg Foot has put together an excellent course called ‘Talking Science’ on YouTube, to help scientists communicate their work. It also includes PDF workbook to download. The whole course is great and covers a wide range of science communication forms. Episode 8 on ‘how to explain a science idea clearly’ is particularly useful.  (Suggested by Andrew Holding)

Basics of Science Communication (Tangelo House)

Tangelo House, public engagement consultancy from Dr Alexis Willet and Caroline Philpott, provide an online course on the basics of science communication, which covers a whole range of topics, including getting the message right.  

Sharing Science (American Geophysical Union)

The AGU has put together a really nice collection of scicomm resources for scientists looking to communicate their work. Although it’s aimed at geoscientists, pretty much all the resources are useful for researchers in any field. (Suggested by Olivia V. Ambrogio)

Science Taboo cards

I love this suggestion from Debbie Ringham from Cancer Research UK. It’s a variation on the classic game ‘Taboo’ which can be played in pairs. You put commonly used academic words onto individual cards, and scientists take it in turns to explain what that term means without using it.

Short tips

A few shorter bite-sized exercises that could help your charity’s researchers hone the explanations of their work.

  • Soundbites – try to explain in 10 or 20-second chunks, rather than long-explanations. This is especially important for doing media interviews, where your interview will probably be chopped up into soundbites. (Suggested by Leah Morantz)
  • Speak, don’t write – try as much as possible to practice by speaking out loud, rather than writing it down. It’ll be easier to rattle off and will sound more natural.
  • Quiet on set – if you want to test yourself explaining science under pressure, film or record yourself on a smartphone. It’ll feel a lot different to muttering it under your breath but will prepare you much better for the real thing.
  • Bigger picture – Step back from your own work and think about the wider implications, or connections to other people’s work – particularly if your work is fairly niche. How could you connect your work to something that your audience knows about?
  • Family and friends test – It’s classic advice, but do practise your explanation against your family and friends, and encourage them to ask as many questions as they like. 

Things to consider

A few things to think about that could help researchers make sure their explanation is as effective as possible

  • Analogies – can be really useful for explaining a tricky concept. But bear in mind how you’re using that analogy – is it really helping? For example, you might explain your research in terms of a car engine. However, (a) five parts of a car engine isn’t much easier than understanding five molecules working together, and (b) does your audience even understand how a car engine works? (I know I don’t). Sometimes explaining science isn’t made easier by a poor analogy. 
  • Early-stage research – it might seem impossible to explain how early-stage research might benefit patients 10 or 20 years down the line. But don’t give up – there’s definitely ways you can do it without overhyping. Here’s a few ideas for how to do that
  • Languageexamine the language you use, and how it might be interpreted. This is especially important if you’ll be talking to patients about your research. Always bear in mind what might they take away from this? And be careful of what Greg Foot calls ‘false friends’: words that have different meanings to different people. For example, ‘model’ or ‘theory’ or ‘risk’ or ‘experiment’. 
  • Dumbing down – firstly, stop using the phrase ‘dumbing down’. People are not idiots because they don’t understand your research. Secondly, try to avoid patronising your audience with superfluous explanations or well-meaning phrases like ‘This might sound complicated but it’s actually really simple…’. I have some more tips here.

Do you have any other resources you’d suggest? Email me, tweet me @DrRichardBerks, or connect with me on LinkedIn

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