Posts Tagged ‘communication’

When the audience doesn’t sit still

In February 2017 on February 23, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Image thanks to military health/flickr via Creative Commons 

Have you ever tried to communicate science to an aggressive 23-year old man who just wants to go home and pretend it’s all not happening?

What about to a 35 year old mother of a baby and a toddler, all three of whom can’t stop crying?

Or a 16 year old exchange student, who is incredibly shy and speaks English as a second language?

Perhaps yelling through a door, to a confused, possibly drugged teenager who is shut in a room to protect the wellbeing of others in her vicinity?

Every night the hospital emergency rooms across Australia fill to the brim with worried, angry, over-stretched, poorly-slept parents and their children.

The children may be vomiting, bleeding, hurting, unconscious or even dying.

The nurses and doctors triage the children according to their needs and the resources currently available.

In just minutes, the professionals make snap assessments on the patients and their parents, and then deliver complex medical information tailored to their needs and demands. It requires the hospital staff to decide:

  • How receptive are these people to being told what to do by an “expert’?
  • What is the level of education  – will they understand if I use terms like “abdomen” or “cardiovascular”?
  • What do they value in this interaction – information? guidance? free drugs? …or just somebody to listen to their problems?
  • Can I make assumptions based on my previous interactions with this family?
  • How should I best communicate with these people – talking? brochures? handwritten diagrams? through an interpreter?
  • What level of detail should I present – am I just trying to prove I’m the one in charge, or will this information be useful and applicable by the parents? Do they even care about the ‘why’?

Knowing and pitching information just right for audience is a continual challenge for those working in science communication. And emergency room personal do it damned well.


Psst! Pay attention. I’m communicating

In March 2016 on March 17, 2016 at 9:29 pm


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.

Activity 1
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.

Activity 2
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]


How Life Works

In September 2015 on September 17, 2015 at 12:28 pm


Sarah: If you studied biochemistry at university, chances are you used ‘The Biochem Bible’ by authors William and Daphne Elliott. Often it was referred to quite simply as “Elliott and Elliott’.

Elliott and Elliott were quite a team, both as authors, scientists and life partners. Here is the brief precis of their achievements, as summarised by CSIRO Publishing:

William (Bill) Elliott was a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Sciences and Head of Biochemistry at The University of Adelaide for 23 years. In 1982 his department was awarded the Australian Government’s first Centre of Excellence, for research devoted to gene technology. In 2001, he was awarded the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society and science in molecular biosciences. At The University of Adelaide, his legacy and achievements are celebrated annually by the W.H. Elliott lecture and a research fellowship in his name.

Daphne Elliott is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences at Flinders University. She was awarded the Chancellor’s Medal in 1994 for her contribution to the education of women in Science and Mathematics and served as Federal President of the Australian Federation of University Women. In 2002, she was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for service to the promotion of women’s education and as an advocate for improving the status and human rights of women.

Bill passed away in 2012. Never one to be idle, he spent his final months and days preparing the first complete draft of a new book aimed not at the science student, but at the general public.

Thanks to the commitment of Daphne — along with her daughter, granddaughter and other family members — that work is now published. I am so very delighted to have worked with the Elliotts to craft some of the figures and tables for this book.

How Life Works: The Inside Word From a Biochemist is available via CSIRO Publishing.

In Bill’s own words:

“This book aims at explaining the fundamentals of life to readers who have no scientific training.”

“It will possibly enable non-scientific decision-makers and the general members of the public to better understand some of the important biological and medical issues that face society.”

I’d say there’s a market for that, wouldn’t you?

[image thanks to Ben Grey]

Playing around with communication

In August 2015 on August 21, 2015 at 2:40 pm


Sarah: Most of the time, I write about science.

But I also like to dabble in other bits and pieces as well.

For example, recently I’ve written about fashion, long distance running and twitcher tourism.

From a broader perspective, I’ve also been playing around with making micro-movies using Vine and Vinyet.

In the kitchen I’ve shown the process of putting together an omelette, making moustache biscuits and constructing an easy ice-cream cake.

At the South Australian Museum I’ve recorded a giant squid and compiled skeletons. At the Adelaide Zoo, I captured a panda…ACTUALLY MOVING.

With just a few minutes planning, you can easily use these tools to share your experiences and even tell stories. Each time I capture footage, I perform a very quick analysis of the following points:

  • Visual appeal: what’s going to make this look good?
  • Structure: what’s the beginning, middle and end of each mini-film?
  • Audience: who might view and like this?
  • Marketing: how should I send this out, and tag it?

Playing around with communication skills is really so easy with a mobile phone.

[image thanks to David Guyler]

Accessing science and art

In May 2014 on May 5, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Sarah: A few days ago I had the privilege of talking to a mixed audience of artists and scientists. The event was a workshop co-organised by the RiAUS and Access2Arts; my job was to speak on the challenges of communicating science and — in particular — transitioning from working in the research world to the much more varied space of freelance writing.

What I came to think about in preparing my slides (shown above) was that all scientists are indeed science communicators – the thing that changes from one career pathway to the next is the audience.

If, for example, as a scientist you work in an Immunology laboratory and conduct immunology research and talk at immunology conferences, then you have the luxury of knowing that your audience is reasonably up to scratch on the basic background of your field, and probably has a level of interest in what you are working on. Your skills as a communicator lie in presenting the why? and how? of the research you performed, and placing the results within the context of the specialist field. You might also offer up what you plan to do next. No over-interpretation, no grandstanding, no claims to have solved the world’s problems, please! And certainly no placement of the people involved at the centre of proceedings.

Presenting science to a broader audience is communication with a focus not on the content or procedures, but instead on the people, the stories and why it even matters in a world full of other news. Furthermore, in this space you cannot necessarily assume any level of science knowledge or understanding of what the scientific process involves. Choice of subject matter is critical, language must be different and you need to find your audiences (not quite as simple as arriving to a pre-arranged crowd at a conference facility!).

The best part about the workshop was meeting the audience members and hearing their perspectives on the similarities between art and science — one thing we all agreed on was that both need to be a part of everybody’s education.

Getting active

In April 2014 on April 14, 2014 at 8:00 am

Kirsti Active voice Steven Hromnak

Sarah: A few days ago, I wrote a post on the peculiarities of verb tenses and personal pronouns in writing about science. I should have prefaced the article with the disclaimer that I have not actually published anything in the pure sciences for many years. I’m delighted that the more in-touch-with-real-science Kirsti has now written a response. 

Kirsti: The tradition of writing in passive voice, or in the third person, as a scientist is still as pervasive as stereotypes of scientists themselves.  Most scientists might still say that a sentence like this:

All stems greater than 10 cm DBH were sampled along the 100 m transect,

is more correct than:

We sampled all stems greater than 10 cm DBH in the 100 m transect.

But things are changing.

Many journals – including high impact journals like Nature – encourage authors to write in the active voice because they suggest that,

“readers find concepts and results to be conveyed more clearly if written directly. We have also found that use of several adjectives to qualify one noun in highly technical language can be confusing to readers.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Using active voice for scientific publications not only saves space and allows more articles to be published per issue, but it infers accountability. Who did the research? WE did the research. WE (the authors) do the stuff; design the study, collect the data, analyse and interpret the results, write the paper. Other people with specific expertise contribute too, and if significant enough, attributing an action to someone should occur in the paper too.

For example, in a results section, using active voice makes distinctions about who actually did specific parts of the work, like this:

We oven-dried (at 80oC for 50 mins) all ant samples, and Pacific Carbon Laboratories analysed stable isotopes 13C and 15N.

If those results were written in the third person, it might read something like this:

All ant samples were dried and weighed (at 80oC for 50 mins), and 13C and 15N were analysed for all individual ants.

This second example has no important attribution to who actually DID the stuff. Say the isotope analysis went wrong? You don’t know who to blame in the second sentence!

Sarah’s post about writing styles in science really piqued my interest, partly because I have been teaching bits of science writing at Monash University for the past 6 years. Here, we teach to write in the active voice. We critique examples in the literature of passive versus active voice, and active always comes out on top. We also review many of the journals’ instructions, which are now moving toward a requirement of active voice.

But I hadn’t really ever thought about it from a mental health perspective.

I’m really interested in reading Sarah’s third person perspective. My head tells me I won’t like it, but my heart totally understands the need to separate oneself from difficult concepts. Kind of telling yourself “it wasn’t really me there, and if I write about it like it was someone else maybe I’ll see things differently……”

Therapy. By writing.

I totally get that.

[image thanks to Steven Hromnik on flickr]

It was written. I write. She wrote.

In April 2014 on April 10, 2014 at 8:44 am


Sarah: Classically-trained scientists communicate in a very particular way. When writing articles for professional publications they are taught to always remove any sense of ‘personhood’ from their descriptions of how experiments are conducted, and the passive tense is usually applied.

Hence, rather than write,

I used a microscope to count the skin cells.

The perfect scientist would say,

Skin cells were counted using a microscope.

It’s indirect, apparently no actual person was involved, and in long sentences it can get messy. But – for historical reasons – it’s just the way things are done in science. It’s rather fitting I guess, given that science is supposed to be removed from any subjective influence.

It’s because of this requirement for a very specific and removed style of language that many scientists find it hard work to communicate through platforms other than their specialist journals. For example, creating enticing and punchy articles for blogs and newspapers can be nigh on impossible without the use of personal pronouns – I, we, she, he, they – and the active forms of verbs. This is something I’ve had to think about quite a bit in writing posts for this blog, as even now habit can lead me to using the passive voice on occasion.

But it turns out there are also implications according to whether one writes using the first or the third person i.e. I versus he or she. This I learnt through reading a fascinating article by Jane Turner Goldsmith: entitled The Psychology of Writing, it appeared in the March 2014 edition of Southern Write, the quarterly magazine of the SA Writers Centre.

Jane says,

“It matters who is telling the story and how it is told. We know this matters to a reader of course, but it turns out to also matter to the writer – from the point of view of mental health.”

And then,

“Writers who use the third person are also less vulnerable psychologically than their counterparts who write in the first person. It makes sense – there is more psychological vulnerability in that exposed first person voice, commonly (but not always) employed by poets, than there is in the more distanced third person point of view. Some kind of mastery over difficult or traumatic emotions is thought to result from the distancing.”

As someone who has been writing daily or weekly blog posts in the first person for the past 20 months or so, this struck a chord. Writing from the perspective of ‘I’ often feels heavily self-indulgent, and can be especially difficult when writing about very personal matters.

Perhaps it could be time to move to the third person to explore some aspects of the science in my life. Could this be my first inkling of a foray into narrative or creative writing? With science in it, of course*.

*Don’t panic, I despise science fiction

[image thanks to Jorel on flickr]




Day 334. Crossing to the dark side

In July 2013 on July 11, 2013 at 12:27 pm


Jacqui Hayes plays underwater rugby, considers herself an expert with tandem bikes and is into physics.

She’s also a well-respected Australian science communicator and writer.

Given my recent Venn diagram-like explorations of science communication and science journalism,  I asked Jacqui if she could offer any insights into this world based on her own experiences.

This is what she said:

Crossing to the dark side

No doubt, almost every journalist who takes a role in PR or communications has been accused of “crossing to the dark side”. For me, it took a week. Not long after COSMOS Magazine announced their office would be moving to Melbourne, I started on a short-term contract as a media liaison and science communicator at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA). A week into the new job, and I had my first visiting reporter and I mentioned how, until recently, I’d been working as a science journalist. She looked at me, a bit surprised. And then, she said it: “You’ve crossed to the dark side!”

It’s always said with faux horreur and a cheeky smile. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to note that in the numerous times since that I’ve heard the phrase, the crossing has only ever been referred to as a one-way transition. No one talks about the PR person who became a journalist. Instead, it’s treated a bit like going through puberty or baking a cake: once it’s done, it’s done, and no amount of wishing can undo those changes.

As I was working for a well-respected medical research institution – as oppose to one of the oft-maligned PR agencies – as often as not, the phrase was followed up with, “but at least you’re working for one of the good ones, right?”

To a certain extent, this is right. When I spoke with members of the public, they were already invested in the research – often they were suffering from a disease being researched at the institute, or they knew someone who was. When I called journalists, I was pitching new knowledge, new trials, new ways of thinking about old problems. I’m sure it takes ungodly persistence and nerves of steel to convince a journalist (or yourself) of the benefits of the product X or a strategic partnership, but luckily neuroscience and medical research, as with much of science, doesn’t require this kind of sales pitch.

In my (albeit limited) experience working in-house, there are some other great aspects to the role I hadn’t appreciated before making the crossing: you get to think creatively about how your story might work across all platforms. Having worked largely in magazines, online, and social media, it was nice to stretch to thinking about how to make a research outcome appealing for television, to think of interesting shots and camera angles (like this one). Depending on the role and which institution you go into, there are opportunities for event management, marketing and broader communications for industry, business development and government. Communicators often end up with a very broad skill set.

I had also thought that there would be fewer stories in house, because instead of working across all of science you are only covering one institution. I was pleasantly surprised to find the process of story discovery as a media liaison and science communicator is really rewarding. There’s far more stories to tell than can ever be told – and often researchers don’t think to tell a communicator about any of their work unless it’s a key publication. You have to dedicate time to building trust and relationships (and communication channels) to get some of these stories, something I couldn’t have done as a journalist.

In the near future, we may face a situation where institutions no longer need the media and journalists: they are slowly building their own audiences, through blogs and social media, and can now talk directly to traditional media’s audience.

In light of this, the role of the science journalist has not been diminished, as you might think, but become more crucial: they cross-check institutional messaging with independent experts; they can tell broader stories, synthesising research across multiple institutions; they can criticise science or individual scientists openly. They are there to defend the reader, not serve an institution.

Even so, as a science journalist who has recently made the crossing, I can say that, all things considered, there is some light on the dark side.

A ScienceforLife.365 guest post by Jacqui Hayes (find her on twitter: @SpaceKangaroo)

Day 332. Making an audience

In July 2013 on July 10, 2013 at 8:34 pm


Writing about science – or indeed any subject – you’re taught to think about your audience.

Who are you targeting? What do they want to read? How can you keep them coming back?

Today something popped up and made me think twice about this concept.

Heather Bray is a researcher and science communicator based in Adelaide, and uses her training in agricultural science to work in and around food science and related fields. She’s currently running the second annual University of Adelaide Intensive Course in Communicating Science (#cs7020).

This morning Heather tweeted the following:

Prof Mike Wilmore‘s media lecture in #cs7020: media makes content & audiences, same with social media. Not thought of myself as audience maker before

Maybe as science communicators we need to think about ourselves as audience makers a whole lot more (follows prev tweet) #cs7020#onsci

This is an idea I really like. In fact, I had a little lightbulb moment when I read it.

*ding* As a writer, I am an audience maker!

There is not a pre-defined mob of people sitting out there waiting for me to fill a void in their lives. If I write stuff that is good enough, I will create a group of followers who actively seek what I write.

Scarily enough, this sounds a lot like marketing.

But I guess that too does make sense. If I can write well enough to convince people that I’m adding value to their lives, then yes, I am a marketer.

[image thanks to Electric Images on flickr]

Day 329. An open letter

In July 2013 on July 8, 2013 at 3:27 pm


Dear fellow members of the Australian Science Communicators,

I too am very interested in considering perpectives on science journalism and science communication, and how the two interrelate.

It interests me on a personal level because I’m trying to work out where I fit along the science writing continuum. However of course there are also bigger implications. Implications for:

  • How we (the people who talk about science) define our goals;
  • How we, governments and consumers make decisions about who pays for communication and journalism content;
  • How the public interprets material with a scientific flavour; and
  • Whether this material has the desired or indeed any impact.

I’ve written a few blog posts in recent weeks trying to get my brain around aspects of this. (If you’re interested, it started with Journalism is dead?, then progressed to Journalism versus communication and finally resulted in this duo: Profile of a science journalist and Profile of a science communicator. Of course my descriptions are not perfect – please add comments if you feel so inspired).

Whilst I’ve found the process of writing these posts helpful in clarifying my own thoughts, of course now I have more questions.

What I’m really interested in is the intersection of the two specialities, communication and journalism. Here are some issues which plague me:

  • In writing and reading job definitions or descriptions, how can one distinguish between a ‘science journalist’ and a ‘science communicator’?
  • Can one person effectively swap from writing as a journalist (for example, for a newspaper) to writing as a communicator (for example, for a science institution)?
    i.e. is switching from relatively unbiased to somewhat biased writing a comfortable transition?
  • Is it important that science writers themselves have an awareness of the difference between science journalism and science communication?
  • How can readers of science writing tell the difference between science journalism and science communication?

Related questions are being raised in other arenas as well: see this piece by Matthew Ingram entitled Thanks to the web, journalism is now something you do – not something you are which explores the relationships between advocacy/activism and journalism.

Getting back to the ASC, are these questions important for us to consider as a community of people who talk about science in public spaces? I think yes, and I’m hoping this may come up as a potential topic for the ASC conference in February 2014. In addition to hearing from communicators and journalists who are ASC members, it’d be great to invite ‘outsiders’ along to get their perspectives as well.

I’m looking forward to the conference.



I posted this letter to the Australian Science Communicators email list July 8 2013

[image thanks to Markus Reinhardt on flickr]