Getting the Secret Sauce of Science Communication

Photo: W.B. Harris

Photo: W.B. Harris

Jane Lubchenco, former head of NOAA and National Academy of Sciences member, is one of the best scientist-communicators out there. At our Leopold Leadership training last June, I asked one of the communications trainers what special training she had received. I was shocked to hear “no more than you.” Like many of the almost 200 fellows before me, I completed my 8 days of leadership and communication training but was still not clear on how to take what I’d learned and translate this into skills that would help me to get to the next level.

Inspired by Jane and other great science communicators, I decided to learn everything I could about what’s in this “secret sauce” of successful science communication. This past year I read books and articles, scanned blogs, and watched TED talks on several overlapping topics in communication: storytelling, presenting, and design.

Over the coming weeks and months, I’ll be sharing what I learned by practicing these skills in talks, publications, and workshops in a series of posts here on the Leopold blog. To kick things off, here are a few universal tips for success from great communicators, whatever their medium:

  • Prepare, practice, and persist: Whatever the mode of communication, preparation, practice, and persistence pay off. Scott Berkun (Confessions of A Public Speaker) notes that effective presentations are thoughtfully planned and well-practiced. Nancy Duarte (HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations) says it’s in the “crafting and recrafting—in iteration and rehearsal—that excellence emerges.” And Chris Anderson, curator of TED, advises speakers to have their talks finalized at least a month prior to the event and then to use that final month to practice in front of audiences of all sizes.
  • Create relevance for your audience: To be effective, communication must have visceral appeal, contain a simple memorable message, and serve the audience. As Duarte explains, this begins by defining your big idea, amplifying your message, and adding emotional texture. Visuals can play an important role. Garr Reynolds points out in Naked Presenter that well-chosen and memorable visuals can help to amplify the meaning of your words. Whether you’re presenting images on a screen or creating them with words, people relate and remember better with visuals. And, as Jeremey Donovan suggests in How to Deliver a TED Talk, the best presenters turn what we commonly perceive as negatives into positives and play with our emotions by juxtaposing negative and positive emotional responses.
  • Tell stories: Weaving storytelling into your oral and written communications is essential to capturing the attention of your audience, relaying important lessons, and increasing the impact of your message. Story allows you to break through preconceptions, connect with your audience, and demonstrate action. Annette Simmons says it’s the sensory details included in stories that make them more interesting, and your message more memorable.
  • Seek feedback: Receiving constructive criticism from those with distance from your work is important for growth and improvement.  As I wrote my blog posts, I shared them with my Leopold action learning group — Kevin Krizek, Stephen Porder, Lisa Schulte-Moore, and Jennifer Tank. Their input on this post has been invaluable, and conversations on the upcoming topics helped me to hone and improve upon my understanding of these skills. I know the final product is improved as a result. Thank you, Woodchucks!

There is no single method to perfecting these skills, but there certainly are a lot of resources that can be tapped. What are your best tips and resources for becoming a great science communicator?

Jill Caviglia-Harris, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is a professor of economics at Salisbury University. Follow her on Twitter (@JCavigliaHarris) and read more about her work on deforestation and poverty.

One thought on “Getting the Secret Sauce of Science Communication

Leave a Reply