Sarah: Hey! You. Yes, you. Yup, I’m talking to you.
Come over here….I want to tell you some science. And you will listen. And you will learn. And you will walk away wiser. And the world will be a better place.
Does this sound familiar? Does this approach work? How do we best transfer or teach scientific information to an audience? It’s a question I’ve been mulling over since I attended the Australian Science Communicators 2016 National Meeting held in Brisbane last week.
Whilst the full program consisted of many interesting presentations, the final session of the day came from Christine O’Connell, Associate Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. When she began, it was past 5pm. You can imagine the crowd that sat in front of her. We were all tired. We were all thinking about the drinks coming up. We didn’t really want to see more Powerpoint slides. Fortunately, she had us up and out of our chairs straight away. I’ll tell you about two exercises that were incredibly valuable.
How Christine O’Connell got us thinking about audience
First, Christine set us up in pairs, and we labeled ourselves Person A and Person B.
Person A was asked to imagine that Person B had travelled from 300 years ago in a time travel machine. Person A was asked to grab her mobile phone, place it in her hand and explain what it was without making to Person B think she was a witch. It was really hard! Explanations went like this:
This is technology —> WITCH!
You can receive messages from other people —-> WITCH!
You can speak to people who are a long way away —-> WITCH
You can read daily newspapers on it —-> WITCH!
How would you explain what a mobile phone is? The best answers came from people who thought about what knowledge base a person from 300 years ago might have. The effective communicators mentioned smoke signals, carrier pigeons….familiar ways that information might be transferred from one person to another. To communicate you must work within the audience’s existing world.
This was a mirroring activity. Standing upright, Person A was asked to ad lib a series of movements that Person B was expected to copy, or mirror. For example, left arm up, down, up, down followed by right arm in, out, out, in. It was fun! It was hilarious doing fast movements, and watching Person B try to keep up.
But then Charlotte told us that Person B was the audience. It’s not ideal to try and trick him. You’re supposed to create a series of slow, repetitive, familiar movements that allow him to follow along, not get frustrated, not get left behind. As Person A you must work with Person B to ensure you’re on the same page. Think about his needs. Think about what he’s expecting. Think about what came before. Think about whether he’s tired, or confused, or angry. This is communication – working together to transfer knowledge.
Although I always like to imagine myself as being pretty good at thinking about audience needs, these activities really blew my mind. In essence, Christine was asking us to stop thinking of ourselves as smart-arse experts. To stop assuming the audience can keep up. To stop creating a distance between ourselves and the audience (for professional or whatever other reasons).
Instead, we should meet the science-interested audience on their home turf and play ball together. That’s communication.
[image thanks to https://www.flickr.com/photos/84442068@N02/]