Through my career, I’ve collaborated with scientists and engineers in order to craft messages about many subjects, from the effects of the great Mekong river in the South China Sea, to the development of unmanned mission-driven robots, or even the mysterious congregation of white sharks deep in the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It is not an easy task, and I can assure you it is as daunting for the scientists, often unaccustomed to dealing with outreach efforts, as it is for the so-called communication expert.
After twenty deep-sea expeditions, and quite a bit more on land, perhaps it is time to accept that even if I am no communication expert for the simple reason that no one really is, I do have a lot of experience in scientific guerrilla storytelling (yes, I just thought of that term and I’m sticking to it).
I have put together 10 tips for STEMM people facing the incredibly intimidating and noisy nothingness that communication for the masses often feels like. They are very simple and you might write them off as a matter of common-sense, but in my opinion, coming back to them through the comms production process delivers a better-constructed message.
1- Imagine you’re talking to a child
Don’t take it from me, take it from Mr. Einstein himself, who said that if you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.
Once we have spent a certain amount of time dealing with a given subject, we lose perspective of what is obvious about it and what is not. We lose track of what the baseline knowledge of our audience is. This is a really important challenge to overcome when it comes to scientific storytelling.
If an adult asks you a question, you might see a peer capable of dealing with the same level content complexity that you are used to. When building a mass media message, try very hard to imagine how you would convey the same concepts to a child. Break the idea into smaller bits, make it easier to digest.
2- Don’t barrage them with information
You don’t need to say absolutely everything there is to say about the subject. Resist the urge to explain it to the minutest of details. When it comes to constructing a story, every building block cannot have the same weight. That is, not everything about your subject is so important or enthralling that it needs to make it into the story. After all, you are not teaching a class, you are telling a good tale.
Leave them wanting more. Start simple, just the bare basics. Build the story from there and don’t get lost in the details. Less is more.
3- Conduct your own focus group
Yes, you’re a scientist and you must be wondering how big your sample should be and what kind of methods you should apply. I’m not talking about that kind of focus group. I find it very useful to present a project or subject in a couple of sentences to people, and see what kind of questions they come up with.
This is a very useful exercise to familiarize yourself with the thinking process of wider audiences. You are an expert of your field, so you are likely to come up with very different questions than an average human being would.
4- Lay down a contract and stick to it
Every good story begins by clarifying what kind of genre it belongs to. Very quickly, your audience must be able to understand what they are getting into, and decide if they are willing. Start your comms by explaining what this piece is going to be about, how you are going to guide your audience through the content, and why it should be of interest.
After that point, those who continue exploring the comms product you’ve created, silently agree to a contract in which they commit to invest a certain amount of time and effort in order to get what you agreed to deliver. So make sure you stick to the contract and give them what you promised.
5- Work with comms people
You don’t need to do everything and be good at everything. There are people like me, whose career is to craft messages. Talk to graphic designers, journalists, videographers. Learn from them, share your work and be open to feedback. We can all support and enrich each other.
6- Have a hero
Every story must have a clear protagonist. It does not need to be human and you don’t need to present it as the sole engine behind the story’s motion. It can be a carbon particle or a hungry virus, even a rusty microscope. Remember, you are not writing a scientific paper, you are sharing scientific knowledge through the construction of an engaging story. Who is your work likely to impact? Who has been fundamental in advancing the field? What are the characteristics of that molecule that make it unique? What is that difficult challenge that must be conquered? All of those can be shaped into narrative vehicles, or protagonists.
7- Use emotions to deliver knowledge
A story won’t be truly compelling unless it kindles emotions. Usually, science is not the most intriguing part of deep-sea expeditions, for instance. Living on a ship, facing the weather, encountering strange creatures, even taking a look at the living quarters and food, those are the first questions that people ask. Followed by the most surprising discoveries made by the scientists onboard and why the subject being researched should matter to the world.
Use the objectively engaging parts of your research to hook your audience, and thread scientific information into the emotional rhythm of your story. Keep in mind, the emotional component of your story might not be the science itself, but the journey to arrive to knowledge.
8- Use similes to bring it home
Consider this: every other breath you take, comes from the ocean. That is a very clear idea that quickly connects the dots and makes us aware of just how important healthy oceans are.
Even at top cruising altitude, commercial airplanes would still be under water if they took off from Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the ocean. This sentence paints a very clear picture of just how deep the oceans are.
Metaphors, similes and analogies are great storytelling tools to bring the knowledge closer to people and create a context they can relate to. They are difficult to come by and many times they might seem contrived, but trying to find them is a worthwhile exercise.
9- Take your time
If you have the time, take advantage of it. Like a delicious stew, stories are better when slow-cooked and left to sit and marinade for a while. Work on it, let it rest and then come back to it.
10- Enjoy it
It always surprises me how even when recording a voice over for a documentary, we can “hear” if the narrator is smiling or not. If you don’t enjoy telling a story, your audience will notice it and become disengaged.
Connect with what is interesting for you about your research, what you are passionate about, and use that to fuel your comms piece.
Clear and compelling communication is fundamental to get the next grant for your research, to fight climate change, to advance towards a more educated society. The ability to communicate is really what makes us human and has allowed civilization to exist. Don’t fight it, embrace it! It’s in your human nature.