Last month I attended the UWE Science Communication Masterclass, and I promised that I’d come back and write a few blog posts on the topics that we covered. I’ve been super busy since then with travel and PhD work, so this is the first of those blog posts. There will be more coming, but they may go into the beginning of next year, hope that’s ok!
Dr Helen Featherstone (right)’s ‘Face to Face with the Public’ session was a really enjoyable part of the course – in particular I liked that Helen didn’t use slides. She essentially performed the session as if it was a public event; we were her public and we were learning the ins and outs of face to face science communication through the activities that she brought with her.
There were 3 main things that really stood out and got me thinking, so I thought I’d summarise my thoughts on each of those topics in case it gets a few of you thinking too.
Direct vs Indirect communication
There are two types of communication – direct, and indirect. It’s important to note that these are on a spectrum, rather than being two distinct things.
Direct science communication relies on a channel of communication and therefore adaptation between the scientist and their public, whereas indirect communication is less responsive.
A few examples:
- Direct communication; Allowing the public to mould their own experience and be part of the conversation – e.g. a face to face activity that includes an interactive element (e.g. making something with a scientist there to facilitate discussion and answer questions etc), an event that is entirely led by the audience (a Q&A or something along those lines).
- Indirect communication; Sending a message out for people to consume – e.g. a radio show (more direct could include something like a phone-in segment), a TV advert (more direct could include something like a hashtag or social media element alongside it), hands-on activities like a jigsaw puzzle, a science book.
The discussion around this was something I found really interesting – Helen had brought in a few different props to represent various activities that she had been involved with. As a group, we discussed each item and activity, and decided where it went on the spectrum of direct – indirect communication. Each and every one of the props was met was questions; where was the activity? Could people ask questions? Was it something that people were doing alone or would the scientist be alongside them? The questions went on for longer than the description of the activity.
The underlying message here? It depends on the specific make up of any event as to how direct the communication strategy is, and that variability is a good thing. Some activities are designed to be direct, and others are not – different audiences and situations call for different types of communication, and it’s up to us as scientists (and science communicators) to get to the bottom of what’s needed in order to meet the goals of the event.
When I went into this session I was expecting to be convinced that direct communication methods were the ‘best’ way of doing science communication – but that wasn’t the case. Helen was really pragmatic about both types of method (and everything in between), and made it very clear that people benefit from different types of communication so it’s important that we do both. I found this refreshing, and it made me feel a bit better about the types of science communication I do most frequently – blogging, social media etc, that tend to be more indirect than direct, but are just as important as the face to face events I’m involved with less frequently.
What are the benefits of direct science communication for different stakeholders?
Again, this was a super interesting session because it brought attention to the reasons why science communication and public engagement is becoming more and more important. We were asked to split into groups and think about the benefits of direct science communication as if we were: citizens (i.e. the public), ‘us’ (i.e. scientists and science communicators), and sector-led stakeholders (i.e. funders). What surprised me at the end of this activity was that each of the lists were different, of course there were a few points of overlap, but largely the reasons why science communication is important was different for each stakeholder group.
A few examples:
- The public – can help the public make informed decisions, increases trust in researchers, allows for transparency, it’s a democratic activity, can provide role models, but most importantly – it should be fun!
- Scientists and science communicators – Impact (this was something that came up a lot, thanks to the language of the UK REF…), it provides us with motivation and ‘the warm fuzzies’ about why we do the work that we do, and it can help us to shape future projects.
- Funders and other sector-led stakeholders – Impact (there it is again), the knowledge economy and transfer of information, brand or product awareness and in some cases, sales.
It’s important that we think of each of these agendas when we’re designing our public engagement activities; if we only take in our own agendas then the event my not be fun for the public, and we may not provide that illusive impact that funders are looking for.
We were warned that this might be the boring bit of the session – but effective preparation is a key part of face to face events. Without proper planning any event can go downhill fast, and we’re not just talking about logistics.
What are you going to say?
Language is really important, and using poorly chosen ways to explain your science can quickly alienate your audience. Helen took us on a little tour around We The Curious, where the course was based, for this section of the day. We had some time to explore the exhibits around the ground floor, and also to look at the language used throughout each of the exibihits.
Some take away points:
- Spelling and grammar etc needs to be triple checked (not only by writers, but scientists and members of the public too)
- It’s really important not to patronise your audience (which can be difficult if you’re getting a real mix of ages/abilities within your target audience) so layered information formats often work very well
- Short sentences are always preferred to long winded pieces of text
- Illustrations and colour are great accompaniments to text – use them to break up paragraphs, and also to reinforce your points in different ways
- Use of ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘we’ are great ways to ensure that your audience feels included – it works to get over any perceived power imbalance
Of course, these points are largely related to exhibitions and events where you’re relying on the public to read your message – but you can use these points when doing face to face and hands on activities with the public too. One of the most important things that I remember Helen saying was around use of language – listen carefully to what your audience are saying in relation to your science, and then reflect that language back when you’re in conversation with them.
What are you going to do?
Having been involved in a few face to face public engagement events, I naively thought that most of the stuff in this section would be familiar to me – how wrong I was!
Somehow, Helen Featherstone managed to get a group of scientists and science communicators excited about the prospect of doing a risk assessment. Yes, I know, it’s almost unbelievable.
Anyway – risk assessments are really important, they’re necessary in terms of health and safety etc, but they’re also a really useful way for you to think about your event in detail, and to make sure that you’re ready for whatever ridiculous thing might happen on the day.
Aside from the thrill of a well thought out risk assessment, we also discussed things like photo forms (forms signed by members of the public that will allow you to take photographs of the event), insurance, contingency planning, and how to adapt to the various venues that you may find yourself in. This was a really in-depth part of the session, and one that I appreciated because it didn’t make me feel stupid or forgetful, just happy that future events I am involved with will be suitably organised and prepared in terms of logistics as well as the creative stuff that’s easier to get caught up in.
I hope this summary of the session has been useful to those of you thinking of getting involved with science communication, be sure to check back over the next few weeks for updates of other sessions that made up this year’s UWE Science Communication Masterclass. A huge thanks to Dr Helen Featherstone from the University of Bath for such a brilliant session!