6 secrets of good science communication

BY JACK MCMARTIN | Every year in February, thousands of scientists, journalists and press officers from around the world converge in one place (this year, deep-frozen Chicago) for the mother of all science conferences: the AAAS General Meeting. I was lucky enough to join in this celebration of science, discovery and nerdom. Here’s what I learned.

Jack McMartin was a science communicator in the KU Leuven newsroom. He tweets @jacksaidthat
© KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

© KU Leuven – Rob Stevens

The AAAS (aka the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science) proclaims two missions for itself: advancing science and serving society. One way it fulfills these missions is by training science stakeholders (read: researchers, journalists, press officers, university leaders, policymakers) in the art of communicating scientific findings clearly, accurately and compellingly to the public (read: non-specialists, the Average Joe, laypeople, your grandmother).

This art has a name: science communication. And the community is thriving. In fact, many top universities around the world now offer graduate programmes and summer schools (There’s one in Flanders!) in science communication. Whole centres, professional organisations and Twitter hashtags are devoted to the craft. Some universities even staff newsrooms and scicomm offices to cover the beat. (Major hat tip, KU Leuven)

As it happens, a slew of science communication superstars were on hand in Chicago. I spoke with, listened to, and ogled over many of them. Here, gleamed from those interactions and distilled down to a sexy, click-baiting list, are their science communication secrets:

Set goals. So you’ve decided to become a science communicator? That’s great! Before joining the conversation, ask yourself: ‘what do I want to get out of this?’ Are you in it for community creation, professional collaboration, advocacy, public outreach, press attention? Once that goal is set, ask yourself ‘who do I want to reach?’ Figure out where those people are, and go there! Your audience may well be on social media; Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere. Time to learn more about communicating with those channels! But remember: if you have no reason to be on social media, don’t bother!

Be authentic. When communicating to the public about your research (particularly via social media), do not shy away from sharing personal setbacks encountered throughout the course of your research. Be upfront about your weaknesses or the weaknesses of your research. Your credibility relies in large part on your authenticity. Marketeers say Twitter is for self-branding and career advancement. Not so. You want people to see you as a person, not a lab coat or tweed jacket.

Tell a story. Communicate your science as a story. Science is the great mystery story because it drips of the drama of human discovery. And it always has room for sequels. Yes, scientists are trained to keep emotion out of their science, and that is a good thing. But often the most interesting science stories are about the human side of science and scientific discovery. That said, avoid ‘soap opera science’. Integrate the story with the science. Don’t ‘dumb things down’, but do explain things in layman’s terms. Assume that your audience is intelligent, but not yet informed on the particular topic. Use analogies, visuals, anecdotes. Have a sense of suspense (and a sense of humour). A good, basic narrative arch to keep in mind: 1) this is how it was, 2) and then this was discovered, 3) and since then this has been the view of the world.

It’s about them, not you. There’s overlap here, of course – people will always be interested in science, and good science communication will always find an audience. Tell them things they don’t know; take them places they wouldn’t otherwise go. Be accessible, literally and figuratively. Give your audience a way to contact you and respond to them promptly.

Don’t oversell your research results. Hold yourself to the highest level of journalistic integrity. Avoid words like ‘major breakthrough’, ‘new discovery’, ‘paradigm shift’, etc. except when there is absolutely no better way to describe your work. Science is a slow, incremental, one step forward, two steps back enterprise. Be honest about that. Not every newly described protein, gene or star warrants a headline in the New York Times. That said, behind every discovery, however incremental, is a story. Tell it if you think it’s worth hearing.

Find your voice. It takes time, practice and hard work to become a good science communicator, and to build an audience base. Get to know the neighbourhood and reach out to people whose work you look up to. Experiment with science writing, blogging, tweeting. Participate, passively or actively, in science cafés, the Science Slam, Metaforum lunch lectures, a blog. Why not make it this one?

6 secrets of science communication


  1. Great text!
    I would us it as a good reference for my colleagues, except for the part ‘Tell a story’ – ‘A good, basic narrative arch to keep in mind: 1) this is how it was, 2) and then this was discovered, 3) and since then this has been the view of the world.’

    This tip doesn’t fit texts like press releases and website articles in which the articles need a different structure, starting with 1) ‘what’s most in important / news’, 2) ‘what’s less important’, 3) ‘what’s least important’.

    You wouldn’t feel like explaining about this structure per chance? I try it every time, and end up having to turn around the whole text every time as well :).

    • Glad you found the post useful!

      The ‘1) this is how it was, 2) and then this was discovered, 3) and since then this has been the view of the world’ narrative arch can be helpful for science communicators (particularly researchers) looking for a way to ‘zoom out’ and talk about a particular piece of research or a discovery in a broader, linear context. It can be handy when structuring a public lecture, for example, or when framing a longer-form article.

      I agree with you: press releases are a different animal and require a different approach. For great tips about “taming beastly press releases”, have a look at this brilliant blog post by Liz Neeley: http://compassblogs.org/blog/2012/09/11/taming-beastly-press-releases/

  2. These recommendations are applicable for every sort of communication, seems to me. What is so unique for science communication then?

    • If you find the tips above useful for communication other than science communication, that’s great! This particular post is tailored to science communicators because it deals with recommendations made by science communicators at a science conference.

      I think a tip like ‘Don’t oversell research results’ is particularly important for science communicators because disregarding it (even inadvertently) can result in misinformation, distorted expectations, unfounded fears, etc. Bad science communication ultimately erodes the public’s faith in science, and that can have serious consequences in terms of health and well-being.

      Matt Shipman writes a great blog on bad science communication. A guest post by Jen Davison on the costs of bad science communication makes the point well: http://www.scilogs.com/communication_breakdown/bad-scicomm-willingham-1/

  3. Good point, Maarten. In other words, you’re concerned about the academic study of science communication, or the ‘science of science communication’. The post above is written on a different register, but evidence certainly has a place in it. One important point in this regard, which was made by science journalist Carl Zimmer in a panel at the conference, is that all science communicators, regardless of the professional (or academic) hat they wear, *must, must must* hold themselves to the highest journalistic standards. At least 2 sources for each fact. Due diligence. Error correction. Evidence-based. This is all the more important because the stuff science communicators produce these days usually goes unfiltered into the world, and once it’s out, can take on a life of its own. So yes, I agree with you that good science communication is evidence-based. Sloppy science communication is definitely a challenge.

    As to your question, the science communication superstars were mainly practitioners (science journalists and bloggers) discussing ‘best practices’: Carl Zimmer, Robert Lee Hotz, David Baron, Paula Apsell, Beth Brookshire, Danielle Lee, Maggie Koerth-Baker, Alan Alda. Several of these people have advanced degrees in science communication or scicomm-related fields and/or teach graduate-level university scicomm courses. Generally speaking, their comments at the conference were directed at a general audience of (aspiring) science communicators, many of whom were new to the concept. There were no presentations of, e.g., published papers dealing with science communication. The above blog post should be seen in that light.

  4. ‘The art of science communication’, you say twice. Hijacking your choice of words, I consider this to be a challenge, namely considering this ‘art’ less as a gut feeling and more as an evidence based practice. Dare I ask, were these science communication superstars primarily practitioners preaching best practice or did they also include scholars who investigate science communication as a research topic?

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