Ten recommendations for effectively communicating science: Part 2

Bill Dennison ·
18 July 2013
Science Communication | Applying Science | 

This blog is the second part to a two-part series of ten recommendations for effectively communicating science. Listed are five recommendations on ways to effectively communicate science.

Recommendation 6. Build relationships that will make science communication more effective

We have found that building key relationships with decision makers and their staff is important in delivering meaningful scientific advice at the time of decision making. Making policy is often messy business and a well-planned strategy of science communication is often subverted by a late phone call or passing comment at a reception or field trip. Thus, having a relationship in which regular interactions with policy makers allows the opportunity to convey scientific advice at the critical juncture. Good political leaders will seek opportunities to learn about issues first hand. They will want to see it for themselves to help filter the various inputs that they will receive from opposing viewpoints. We have found that taking political leaders on field trips is an effective way to educate them about key issues and begin developing relationships with them and their key staff. Being politicians, they often enjoy meeting people and appearing in the media, so field trips that involve assembling groups of people and having press along will encourage them to attend future events.

One of the primary motivations to producing environmental report cards is to speak 'truth' to 'power'. 'Power' is vested in elected officials and community leaders and it is our tenet that these elected officials and community leaders need to make their decisions based on 'truth'. While absolute 'truth' is elusive and the scientific method of developing and testing hypotheses does not produce 'truth', it is the concept of using the best scientific understanding to inform environmental decision making that is meant by speaking truth to power. Environmental report cards with transparent methods in which data are converted to scores or grades allow everyone to assess the status of the ecosystem. As with school grades, the comparisons with others is important and the trend in scores (improving or degrading) is important. To be effective over the long term, environmental report cards need to be produced by an honest broker, not a special interest group or a group with a political agenda.

Diagram from Integrating and Applying Science
Combining knowledge, power, and passion leads to societal paradigm shifts. Source: Integrating and Applying Science, Figure 2.13, pg. 25.

Recommendation 7. Use science communication to tell stories

An ancient and valued form of human expression is story telling. Since science is often focused on gathering and interpreting facts, the art of story telling is often lost. However, whenever a scientist can string together the various facts and weave it into a story, the result can be a powerful communication device. Stories often feature people, which natural science does not emphasize (apart from social science aspects). Stories are often more compelling when they feature people. The race to discover natural selection was made more compelling when Darwin was challenged by Alfred Wallace, and a hundred years later the race to discover DNA was compelling, pitting Watson and Crick against luminaries like Linus Pauling. This human aspect to scientific discovery is often lost, yet it can help form a compelling story.

In Dancing with Dugongs, we are attempting to provide a storyline, retrospectively and reflectively. This is very personal – it is about how we think (head), how we feel (heart) and how we act (hands). The whole concept of creating a story out of our life experiences is an attempt to tell a story that connects what we know to what we have done. We have thought long and hard about our environmental philosophy, and while the story may be somewhat disjointed, it is the product of two people who have spent a lifetime of striving to develop an integrated philosophy.

Recommendation 8. Use science communication to take people from uninterested to interested to informed to engaged

An environmental campaign requires transitions from uninterested to interested, from interested to informed, and from informed to engaged. Each of these transitions requires different approaches. Peter used his pirate motif in a shopping mall to get uninterested people to become interested. These shoppers did not come to the shopping center because they were interested in the environmental integrity of Pumicestone Passage, where Peter was the Catchment Coordinator, but the image of a grown man dressed as a pirate and saying "Arghh" captured their attention long enough for Peter to engage them in a conversation about Pumicestone Passage issues. Peter also stimulated the creation of a large stuffed dugong that featured in the Dugong Rock videos. The Healthy Waterways Campaign eventually created a large mascot, Hugo the Turtle, with a person dressed up in a large stuffed animal costume attending various fairs and public gatherings. In addition, broad media exposure to unique environmental features, ecotours, and iconic animals can be celebrated to garner attention and convert uninterested people to interested people.

The transition from interested to informed is where science communication has a major role. The development of visually rich publications and web materials using newsletters, fact sheets, posters, flyers, books, booklets, report cards, and interactive web content serve to inform people interested enough to read more about a topic. With the explosion in virtual information sources, the importance of written material and attending presentations in person is often overlooked. Yet, the importance of having someone show up in person and talk about issues and answer questions is vitally important. In addition, one of the things that Bill has learned in his public speaking, as part of the Healthy Waterways campaign, was the importance of shutting up and listening. People often came along to a talk because they had something they wanted to say, and a scientist with a working knowledge of their issues or ecosystems is exactly the person they wanted to talk to. These comments from the public often expressed concern, illuminated new issues, or provided insight. Bill learnt that his public talks were typically only half of the event, with listening and follow-up discussion continuing well after the talk was completed, constituting the other half of the event.

The final transition, going from informed to engaged, requires yet another approach. People need something that they can do to become engaged and an environmental campaign needs to provide ample opportunities for involvement. This can be in the form of stream restoration activities, tree planting, and citizen science participation in monitoring, local environmental organizations, or advocacy. When Bill was involved in the Healthy Waterways campaign 'road show', we learnt to send along someone just to help sign people up for various activities and to introduce them to local organizers. The other component to environmental report cards that Bill's group produces is to indicate what individuals can do in their everyday life to improve their environment. These suggestions are often incremental solutions, with a slight behavior change (e.g., use less water and energy, plant trees), with the hope that large numbers of people making slight changes can make a difference and that small behavior changes could pave the way for larger, more substantive changes at a later date.

Diagram from Integrating and Applying Science
The overall purpose of the environmental campaign is to take the uninformed to informed and the informed to the engaged. Source: Integrating and Applying Science, Figure 4.4, pg. 50.

Recommendation 9. Use visualizations to communicate science

One of the techniques that we use as often as possible is to provide visualizations. We often work hard to take political leaders on field trips so that they can see the issue first hand. Bill felt that if he could show an elected official both the good and the bad sides of an issue (crossing environmental gradients or contrasting good versus bad environmental practices), then the contrast would serve as a learning moment that would last for a long while. Peter felt that having fisherman describe the issue in their own words in a setting where they were comfortable (e.g., their boat) would make the issue very real to the elected officials.

As part of the attempt to explain issues to broad audiences, we learned that people would become much more engaged if they were viewing a visual element that they felt that they could contribute to. The photos, maps and graphs were not viewed as something they could modify or add value. In contrast, a conceptual diagram in which various ecosystem attributes and processes were presented in a visual style that used intuitive symbols (e.g., a fish looked like a fish, or an arrow coming from a pollutant source into a waterway conveyed a transport mechanism), we found that people would become animated and offered suggestions for modification. In addition, these conceptual diagrams could be created de novo with community members generating the ideas and expressing their environmental values through the prioritization that occurs in drawing the ecosystem in a diagram. In this case, the people involved in the diagram developed an ownership of the diagram that can be effective for achieving 'buy-in'.

In order to meet the needs of various groups to create conceptual diagrams that depicted the issues they cared about and to create a sense of place when viewing the diagram, it became necessary to hire people with graphic art capacity. Over time, it became obvious that to effectively communicate scientific issues, the graphic artists need to be conversant in science. What was needed was a unique combination of scientific background with its rigor and ability to synthesize information along with artistic flair and graphic artistic capability. While this combination could be achieved in two ways – training graphic artists in science versus training scientists in graphic arts, we found that the most effective way was to train scientists in graphic arts. Not everyone could bridge the science and graphic arts chasm, but software developments in graphic arts have facilitated the transition of scientists into graphic arts. Bill started this process using graduate students at the University of Queensland, but then developed a cadre of Science Communicators at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

With the need for new symbols for each new diagram, it soon became apparent that a master list of these symbols needed to be created. With the development of the Internet, these symbols could be shared widely and new ones added as they were created. Our first thought was to have everyone creating symbols adding them to a symbol library, but we soon leaned that to maintain quality control, we needed a gatekeeper approving or editing new symbols to insure a common look and feel. Some people were inclined to develop cartoon-like depictions, but the scientific conceptual diagrams were attempting to not be cartoons, rather abstract depictions of ecosystems. Thus, we evolved our symbol library into a searchable database of symbols that were generated by a wide variety of people with a common look and feel. This symbol library has continued to grow and be used by a wide variety of people from around the world. As a result, what started out as an attempt to capture ecological issues in Southeast Queensland has grown into a global symbol language. This language is being grown organically (by the need to create a symbol for a particular diagram communicating a specific issue). The thousands of symbols are language and culture independent. That is to say, a turtle symbol is recognizable to anyone who has ever seen a turtle. Other devices, like using universal colors to depict danger, good and bad, or using size and position of symbols to connote relative importance serve to make the conceptual diagrams meaningful to the broadest possible audience.

Recommendation 10. Create memorable moments to help communicate effectively

An important communication technique that we have employed is to create memorable moments in presentations or workshops. Creating a memorable moment enhances the likelihood of the message being remembered by the participants. Peter has used songs as a way to create a memorable moment. He sings songs that are related to the topic and draw people into the overall story. 'Sing-alongs' also serve to create a shared sense of community. Peter will often bring his guitar to an otherwise staid event. Bill uses poems or songs in his presentations as well, but without the singing ability. Another technique to is do something different than anyone else. At the end of a long conference of continuous powerpoint presentations, Bill has given 'naked' talks without using any powerpoint slides. This once occurred when Bill was about to give a presentation at a national meeting and the computer malfunctioned. It was indeed memorable for all who attended, as he had to resort to a chalkboard presentation. Presenting information in a unique style can make a difference in getting the message through. In all cases, the danger is that the people will remember the style, but not the substance. For this reason, it is important that the song or poem or humor is topical - just singing a song is entertainment, but singing a song that addresses the topic in a novel way is enhancing communication.

Peter Oliver on stage
Peter Oliver creating a memorable moment on stage.

This blog post is an excerpt from Dancing with Dugongs: Having fun and developing a practical philosophy for environmental teaching and research by Peter E. Oliver and William C. Dennison, which will be released at the 2013 Riversymposium in Brisbane, Australia.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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