How to communicate your science better

“In this blog post, Jeremy LeLean from the Soil Security Programme gives his thoughts on how to communicate your science better”

Science is important and maybe just as important is communicating science.  At a recent Science Media Centre briefing the first slide introduced the idea that ‘media will do science better when science does media better’ and this is absolutely true.  As a scientist you are responsible for helping to make this happen which can be daunting.  By following a few simple tips and with a small investment of your time you can it becomes much easier that you might first think.

Engaging with traditional media

Traditional media is still worth engaging with, you may have heard a lot about the death of newspapers and TV news but even on social media a lot of links go to traditional media e.g. online newspapers or news sites.  Furthermore, a lot of what is good practice for traditional media works for social media too. News stories are called stories for the reason that they tell a story and so are constructed differently to, for example, a scientific paper.

  • Whereas a scientific paper gets more important as you progress through it to the conclusions, a news story has the most important information first.
  • A news story will be edited from the end to the beginning so always have the most important information first, and the least important information last (again the reverse of a scientific paper).
  • People learn in different ways so you’ll need to employ a variety of techniques to communicate your message for example narrative, metaphor and pictures or diagrams.
  • Always make sure you convey your core message clearly and simply.

Presenting yourself online

You should have a plan of how you are going to present yourself online before you start, for example, tweeting.  Rather than broadcasting an unedited stream of your life, it might be helpful to use this model to decide what topics you are going to focus on:

For example, I have children but, if you look at my Twitter profile, you’ll see I don’t tweet or blog about them whereas a friend of mine who writes about the benefits of large families and siblings mentions his family often.  It’s all about creating the right profile to support the core message that you want to get across to your audience.  For me this means tweeting about the three broad topics of environmental research, communication and impact and books.  I also retweet information that I think will be of interest to people who follow me, these tend to be colleagues, academics and organisations related to the work I do on the Soil Security Programme.

You can probably think of times (personally and in the news) where words written online haven’t had the meaning intended or have been misunderstood.  The lesson is to make sure that you pick your words carefully.  I’m sorry to say that there’s no real substitute for practice on this one, though seeing how other people are explaining themselves, as with any medium, is a good start.

The other issue that comes up quite often is time – I’m already a busy researcher so how will I find the time?  You can apply the filtering shown in the diagram below to all online platforms.  You probably go through a similar process when keeping up with the literature in your field so think of it like that.  For example, when I’m using Twitter ‘Ignore’ would be when I see a tweet that isn’t interesting, ‘Park’ would be liking a tweet and coming back to it, ‘Engage’ would be to read it now and retweet is useful or ‘Discard’ if not.  Again with practice this becomes easier.

As Shakespeare said “brevity is the soul of wit” and I would say brevity is the soul of good online communication.  So to finish I’ll be brief, for good science communication always:

Be Concise, Be Clear and Be yourself

Author: Jeremy LeLean is a seasoned communications professional who works for the Soil Security Programme.  He has a background in biochemical research with more recent experience in the e-commerce sector where he sold collectible and antiquarian books, a passion that has stayed with him.

Twitter: @JeremyLeLean