One of the most rewarding activities that I get to practice as a scientist is public outreach, and like most academics, I was never taught how to communicate to the public. In this column, I hope to share with the Academic Chatter community some of the most important things I learnt over the years.

Don’t teach. Inspire.

This is the most important piece of advice I can give you.

I know it may seem counter-intuitive. You surely thought you were going to go out and teach the public some science – and you will! – but my point is that you should not see the teaching aspect of outreach as your main goal.

Many a time, I have seen speakers cramming as many concepts as they could into a talk. At first it may seem as though you might as well maximise how much information you deliver in the time you are given, but you need to understand this: Delivering more does not mean that people will take away more.

Your public talks are not lectures. Your scicomm columns are not textbook chapters for people to be tested on.

The most important thing to communicate is not your knowledge: it’s your passion for science. Your enthusiasm and energy are what will capture the attention of the public – and engaging your audience is the first step to sharing your expertise with them.

Don’t see yourself as a teacher, but as an entertainer.

Keep it simple

Whether you are writing a piece or giving a talk, you should keep your material simple for the audience you are delivering it to. You can’t expect that you learnt in high school to be common knowledge: some people didn’t pay attention in science class, some didn’t go to science class, and the rest probably just forgot.

Know your audience. Don’t assume knowledge. This may require you to do a little research, or even ask questions. For example if you are speaking to children in a school, get in touch with their teachers – you don’t have to figure this out on your own.

Do not use jargon. If you are thinking “I’ll just explain it to them at the start of the talk/column” 一 don’t. I’ve seen it done and I’ve tried to do it myself, it does not work: There is only so much information your audience can ingest in a small amount of time. 

Instead, use relatable analogies anchored in every-day experiences. Give them some intuition for the general concept, even if the words are not precise and the details approximate.

Your explanations should make your audience feel smart, not make you look clever.

Keep it short

To avoid confusing or losing the attention of your audience you need to keep your content concise and focused.

If you’re giving a talk, don’t rush through as much information as you can 一 ensure you have plenty of time to deliver you material within the time you are given. If you are writing a column, keep in mind that a lot of science news articles fall in the 500 to 1000 word range.

The answer will depend on what you write, of course, so let’s look at a recent infographic I made 一 every paragraph has one goal and helps progression:

  1. The first paragraph introduces the context and the question.
  2. The second paragraph gives some details about the “problem”, with a graph and numbers.
  3. The third paragraph is an introduction to the “rebuttal”, with another small graph.
  4. The fourth paragraph and the main graph provide the conclusion.

You can perform a similar analysis on science news articles or on a deck of slides. Practice this to learn from the material of others or check where yours can be condensed.

Visual Design

As a group, scientists have a tendency to neglect the visual aspect of presenting information. Whether it is in slides or posters, you’ll often see one big mistake:

Too many words. 

Using figures and images will help you keep your material concise and relatable. When designing slides for talks, it is particularly important because the audience cannot read and listen to you at the same time. Your slides should support your talk and explanations, not get in their way.

You don’t need fancy tools to make useful visuals. Here is a slide I made in google slides: the background is an artist impression I found online (don’t forget to give credits! ), on top of which I placed 3 circled and 3 arrows. This is a visual representation of a feedback loop: it really helps give people an intuition for a bit of complex physics in a way that words and equations could never do.

This second slide is a wordier one that contains a summary of supernova properties. It includes a public domain image and icons I got from a google slide add-on. Also notice the big highlighted conclusion: it’s the first and last thing my audience will look at 一 it’s the main piece of information I want them to remember.

I could go on and on about design but just remember this:

Fewer words. More pictures.

Practice Practice Practice

Public speaking takes practice, making slides and poster takes practice, writing takes practice.

Whatever form of outreach you want to do, you will probably have to step out of your comfort zone, maybe even learn a new skill. It may seem daunting, but remember this:

Stepping out of your comfort zone is the only way to make it grow.

We are reaching the end of this piece, so public speaking or writing tips will have to wait for another one. Just know that no-one was born a great speaker or a great writer. When you see a great scicommer, don’t think “I’ll never be able to do that”, because believe me, they all sucked at some point.

All you need is practice, practice, practice.

You can do this!

Dr. Heloise Stevance is Research Fellow at the University of Auckland studying the stellar populations responsible for Kilonovae and Supernovae. Her involvement with public engagement started early in her PhD. Over the years she has acquired experience with audiences of all ages across many media. You can find her here and on Twitter @sydonahi.

Don’t Teach, Inspire
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