You couldn’t make it up!

I’ve recently been discussing the mechanisms of effective science communication and was challenged to suggest a good ‘how to’ guide. Truth is… you don’t need one, but that isn’t to say that you don’t need training to learn it. In fact, the description across the top of this blog contains all the fundamental rules.

It talks of two things, finding the right words and of getting someone to explain them. I’ll share some pointers on both of them now but they are addressed using the same method.

Thing is, you already know the right words. You’ve merely forgotten them because you’ve been buried in journals aimed at an academic community and reading your lecture notes from PowerPoint for too long. When you first learned the topic that sufficiently captured your imagination enough to become a passionate career, you didn’t start with the big words that, admittedly, are now useful in summarising a lot of information for purposes of brevity. No, and neither will your audience. Is a demonstration required? Ok, Clinicians would understand the term, ‘haemochromatosis’ and biologists, ‘apoptosis’ but would your mother?

tea[1]Try to imagine a conversation with your her or someone equivalent. Ok, if she works at CERN or is a neuroscientist then this might not work but bear with me. Sit down and pour the tea from the pot and ask her what she did today. Listen carefully to all she tells you and if you don’t understand who someone is or why they did what they did, then ask her to explain. When she, or the tea has finished, quickly recall all the words she has just used to describe the highlights of her day. They will have been simple words, as they often are in conversation. Now, being delighted you took the time to ask her, she will respond in kind and reciprocate the question. So tell her about the project you are working on but start with the background. For now, don’t focus on the words, just talk with her and watch her reaction. If she is quietly nodding and doesn’t ask any questions it’s because you’ve slipped in to lecturing and she has slipped into the polite student. She is hearing you but not listening to you. This is not the communication we are looking for. If she is asking questions, then you are moving in the right direction as she is at least following you someway. When she asks a question, don’t move from answering it until she asks another question. You’ll find the conversation meanders like a stream and you will never get to the end of telling her what you did today. Remember two things: a) she was only being polite and probably doesn’t really want to know what you are saying in the same way that any average student doesn’t, and b) the purpose is not for you to help her become a research assistant for you and she doesn’t really need to know all the fine details about your research, this is a learning exercise for you.

The aim of this exercise is for you to develop a conversation, which is a two-way thing. Conversations are not scripted or fully structured but are fluid and grow organically through improvisation. By improvisation, I’m not suggesting you are making it up as you go along because there is a theme involved, one you have chosen and know thoroughly, so it is more like a discussion. So what do I mean by an improvised conversation?

Imagine if you sat on a motorbike but handed over control of the throttle and steering to your pinion rider behind you. You can see where you are going, but the other person controls it. How fast do you think you would go? Not very, I’m sure, and with very good reason. Such a situation would be scary which is likely why we do not normally teach our undergraduates that way. It should be but we often take the easier option of delivering information as a broadcaster, having control of the steering and the throttle. This allows us to go as fast as we like and in the direction we want to go without regard for our passenger. The scary option, away from our notes and faced with discussion via audience questions that can direct it means we go slower. With the constant thought that anything you wanted to say may be put on pause while you back up a little will help your skills in this area. Talk with, not at.violaspolinimprovisation[2]

This is just my little exercise in encouraging improvised conversational skills but these techniques are not new. For those wanting to learn a little more about these very valuable games then click here and learn something from Viola Spolin.

So, you’ve clicked on the link and found out that it is about acting methods. Where am I going with this? Well I’m leaving you in Viola’s hands today because it leads nicely to what I want to talk about next. Why we need to move far away from our own fields to be able to do any effective public engagement communication. Yes, on to acting school and if you don’t think this is anything to do with science, then tomorrow I’ll bring something to the table that MIT neuroscientists appreciated.