Communicating Science- What we learned from the Alan Alda Communicating Science Workshop

By Jennifer Wagner

“Communication Breakdown, It’s always the same
I’m having a nervous breakdown, drive me insane!”

This sentiment is not unique to Led Zeppelin fans. Nearly everyone has been in a situation where they felt they weren’t being heard or were frustrated about not understanding what someone else was saying… perhaps to the point of being driven insane. Scientists are not exempt from these feelings and the global change community at Virginia Tech is increasing its understanding of the importance of effective science communication in the work that we do. In keeping with the Global Change Center’s mission, IGC IGEP graduate students and other affiliated graduate students recently participated in a full day Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science Workshop at the Skelton Conference Center.

The day began with a question… When is science complete?

Some (and I’d hope all) would say only once it is communicated. But communication comes in many forms. In the scientific community, this communication has traditionally been in the form of publications in scientific journals or presentations at conferences. Yet, in recent years it has become apparent that communicating to fellow scientists is not sufficient for the modern role of a scientist and often does not have the ability to reach the public in the ways that it needs to. A lot of us now feel that it is our duty to be better scientific communicators for the sake of the future. If we want positive change based on the best-available science, then we need policy makers that believe in this. And to get these policy makers in office, we need a scientifically educated citizenry. So, if we want to be better scientific communicators, how do we do it?

What did you say?

We began the day with a simple exercise….Trying to interpret the esoteric language often used by sports enthusiasts. An example was provided that described an end-of-game highlight. The passage was filled with sports jargon and was– quite frankly–boring! In fact, few in the group really even understood the event being described. (This is probably how everyone else feels when we talk about our research! With a bit of work from the participants, which included reworking the passage so that there was suspense and drama, we could all now understand the passion of the event. This should be our goal when we describe our research.


Carl Wepking takes a shot at distilling Brandon Semel’s abstract for a “general audience”

So, describe your research… in everyday language, please.

You may have heard of the stigma associated with scientists who “dumb down” their research. Even the famed science communicator, Carl Sagan, was lambasted by the scientific community for being too focused on public outreach and was even denied tenure at Cornell. While the times are changing in this regard and outreach is often formally part of a faculty position, many still don’t want to seem condescending or that they are speaking down to someone. News Flash: Speaking in everyday language isn’t “dumbing it down” or being “condescending”… it’s being accessible. This is your goal. Be accessible to the person with whom you are communicating.

Our exercise in using everyday language to describe research began with an example of a conference abstract from Brandon Semel, an IGC fellow. We were all given about 3 minutes to read the abstract and then asked to describe the research. In a room full of scientists, we estimated that we understood about ½ to ¾ of the material. We then had some “citizen volunteers” from Blacksburg read the abstract and explain whether or not they understood the material. There were…let’s just say, mixed reviews. “Something about animal digestion?” one woman offered.

Here’s the thing–for a scientific conference among peers, this abstract was clearly great. But under a different setting and with a lay audience, use language that is more efficient, while maintaining accuracy. Instead of saying “we observed geophagy”, simply state that “we saw animals eating dirt”. Instead of referring to your study species as “diademed sifakas (Propithecus diadema)”, simply tell your audience that you worked with a type of lemur. If you can reference the popular movie Madagascar, even better, because then they can easily conjure up a mental image of your research animal. Instead of saying that you think one reason for this behavior is to help them with “toxin adsorption”, just say it may help them “pull toxins from their body”. We had a fun time with Brandon’s abstract and clearly there are ways that many of us can apply this to our line of work. What words have you been using so long that you forgot you had to learn them once you entered your field? Think carefully about how much jargon you use with colleagues and make sure to remove these when communicating with those outside of your field.

In addition to removing jargon from your language, think about how many words have a different meaning in science than in everyday life. For example, theory means two very different things in these two contexts. This was hit upon during Sue Hassol’s visit last year as she discussed her tips for communicating climate change science. For a thorough list of what words you may want to reconsider, with alternative words to use, check out this great spreadsheet compiled by Dr. Andrew David Thaler at Southern Fried Science.

Graduate students practice the art of "distilling" their research messages during the workshop

Graduate students practice the art of “distilling your message” during the Alan Alda workshop

Distill. Your. Message.

After thoroughly analyzing Brandon’s abstract, we broke into the first session of the day, which was a group exercise in “distilling your message”. This session was focused on solidifying the perfect “elevator speech”.  In other words– we learned how to describe our research when we only have a couple of minutes to do so.

Because science is complicated and labor intensive, some scientists get carried away with wanting to include a lot of details upfront. They have trouble getting to the punchline. But science communication is not about rambling about every detail of your research; it is about being able to connect with someone through conversation. The details will come once the conversation starts. You want to get them interested, so that they genuinely want to ask you more questions.

We were each timed one minute and had to explain our research to the rest of the room. I recommend that everyone try this exercise. I promise you that no matter how complicated your research is, you can explain the gist of it in one minute! One tip is to start with something relatable. For example, I use zebra finches as my animal model to study how incubation temperature affects birds, so I can use my hands to give a general size of the bird and tell the person “you’ve probably seen them in pet stores. The males have bright orange cheek patches.” Or because I study environmental influences on phenotype, I can start with “You may have heard of the nature vs. nurture debate.”

Metaphors can work great as well. In a video, we watched a researcher compare the smell of baking cookies in a house to the way a cell follows a trail of concentrated molecules in solution. Try to imagine the metaphors that would work perfectly for your research!

When you are talking about your research, don’t forget to use emotion (passion people!) and look the person in their eyes to make sure they are following you. Finally, if you feel terrible about dealing with a complicated subject in a simple way, tell the person something similar to what Richard Feynman says: “it is much more complicated than this and if you want to know more, I can tell you.” If you do a good job on this, the person you are talking to should have enough intrigue and information to ask you questions about it. This is when you get into the nitty gritty of your subject. I urge everyone to try this out… as much as possible! It is just one minute, so try it with your family, a cashier, a friend, or your dog walker. The more you practice, the more you will refine your message and be able to tailor it to your audience. Good luck!


IGC Fellows Cathy Jachowski and Tony Timpano use “Improv” techniques to enhance their communication skills

Improvisation… for scientists!

Our final session involved multiple improvisational games, where we focused on being present in the room, truly paying attention to people around you (or a single person), and then reading reactions and being responsible for them. Improvising happens every time we have a conversation, so really this need not be thought of any differently than that. However, mastering these skills takes practice. We’ve all thought (or perhaps had someone say to us) “are you even listening to me?” By practicing these skills, we will hopefully get better at 1) knowing when we are not truly present and then taking the steps to make ourselves present and 2) knowing when our audience is not present and how to do to bring them back to us.

One eye-opening exercise was when we had to hold a blank piece of paper and describe the picture on the page.  Imagine describing a picture that was well known to you, but unknown to the person you were talking with. What type of detail would you describe so that the other person can be looking at the picture with you? How might you describe the scenery? Or the facial expressions on the peoples’ faces? What type of emotion would you bring to that picture? Now paint the same type of picture for your research. Take the person on the journey with you.

Finally, if the nerves of speaking publicly are too much for you, think about directing your energy outward. Instead of having the periscope on yourself, have it on the other person. As IGC fellow Heather Governor explained, the exercise is about “the absence of self-awareness and more on having an objective… figuring out the best way to get that message across.” Overall, we experienced first-hand what it is like to talk with and have an experience with someone, rather than talking at them. Potentially, there will be no droning on and on in our future!

See more photos from the workshop.


Jennifer Wagner

Jen_thJennifer, a Ph.D. student in Fish and Wildlife Conservation and an IGC fellow, is passionately interested in understanding how environmental factors influence the development and long-term trajectory of organisms. She is currently studying how incubation temperature affects growth, behavior, immune function, and sexual selection in the gregarious zebra finch. She hopes her career will straddle the worlds of science, policy, and public outreach/ communication.