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Environment, Sustainability, Renewables, Conservation, Water Quality, Green Building — And How to Talk about it All!

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7 Tips for Effective Science Communication and Outreach

As a scientist, it’s a very satisfying feeling to publish research that solves a complex problem. But your job no longer ends there. To really ensure your work has relevance, you need to be able to communicate about your science to a broader audience. When journalists pay attention, then the public can become aware of it and then, potentially, policymakers and other decision-makers will take notice, making it more likely that your work can have a real impact.

Scientists who embrace public communication, and who know what they want to communicate, to whom, how and when, can become leaders in their fields. And others will take notice of this leadership. As a result, being a good communicator can help you ensure your research gets noticed and has an impact, can support the next round of scientific development in your field, and can grant your career a boost through professional recognition.

Below are seven steps you can take to ensure outreach and communication for your work:

  1. Commit to communicate. As you embark on any research, commit at the beginning to communicating about the results when your work is complete. You could already thinking about the potential impact of your work and why the public might care about the results, who might be most interested, and how it can make a difference. Embracing this critical role from the beginning will help prepare you when you have completed your work and are ready to begin communicating.
  2.  Commit to your research. Always remember why you are doing your research, why it is so important to you, and why others should care as well. Presumably, you are taking on this complex project to solve a problem that you care about—keeping this goal in mind will help you have confidence in speaking about your work and generating the passion necessary to get others to believe as well.
  3. Expect and embrace criticism. Criticism of your work will not end with the completion of the peer review process, unfortunately. Genuine, thoughtful criticism can actually be valuable to you, both in allowing you to help others’ understand your work and helping you to see what the next phase of your research should be. By embracing this input and engaging with your critics, you can potentially create a new network of collaborators and colleagues who can act as sounding boards moving forward, leading to new discoveries.
  4. Be prepared. Good communication requires preparation, practice, and passion. Preparation is just that—knowing what you want to say and to whom you will be saying it. Knowing your audience is key in this step so that you can tailor your message appropriately. Practice allows your presentation to flow smoothly and effortlessly. Practice also helps keep your nerves under control. Passion is infectious and is critical in engaging your audience.
  5. Present solutions, not problems. When a journalist contacts you about an issue and wants your expert opinion, they want to learn about the solution from an expert—you. You need to be able to state definitively what you have learned and the implications of that information. Focusing on solutions can make the science accessible and actionable.
  6. Take advantage of opportunities. It almost goes without saying, that you should take advantage of opportunities to communicate your science when they present themselves. When a journalist calls you, be ready to chat; if you receive and invitation to speak, accept. One way to always be ready is to have a series of talking points, an op-ed, or even a short, accessible article about your work ready to go at any time.
  7. Build a network. Scientists need to think beyond their immediate colleagues and build relationships outside of their world, including with journalists, policy advocates, local and state officials, and others who may care about the science. In this way, these individuals can also become champions of your work, helping to build a chorus of voices speaking for your research.

These are just a few quick tips to get you started. There are many, many more, and we can dive into some of the details on individual steps in future posts.

Elizabeth Striano


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No Escaping the Need for a Digital Strategy

A compelling internal report from the New York Times has surfaced that provides an analysis of its digital strategy and which has implications for anyone involved in any type of communications. The report–a summary of which was leaked last week–outlines the many missteps the Times has taken in implementation of their digital strategy and contrasts their approach to more successful upstarts like The Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. As outlined in this excellent summary from Nieman Journalism Lab, the report shows that the Times has remained firmly rooted in its history as a print publication and has not successfully made the transition to digital, which has hurt readership and distribution.

If an organization as large and established as the New York Times can miss these seemingly blatant opportunities, then what are the implications for smaller organizations or those with a smaller, more focused audience? If there is only one take home message from the report it is this: Digital outreach has become the single most important route to getting news and information to your target audience.

The report outlines this and many other important findings. All of which have significant implications for science journalism, which often struggles for accurate coverage from the very beginning. Because of this, the ability to harness social media has become even more critical to those in the sciences. Although I recommend reading the full report, at the very least everyone I recommend reading the Nieman’s summary.

The report makes the case that authors of any type of content have to become their own social media advocates:

In a section addressing promotion of New York Times content — essentially, social media distribution — the report’s authors survey the techniques of “competitors” and compare them to the Times’ strategy. For example, at ProPublica, “that bastion of old-school journalism values,” reporters have to submit 5 possible tweets when they file stories, and editors have a meeting regarding social strategy for every story package. Reuters employs two people solely to search for underperforming stories to repackage and republish. (p. 43)

Contrastingly, when the Times published Invisible Child, the story of Dasani, not only was marketing not alerted in time to come up with a promotional strategy, “the reporter didn’t tweet about it for two days.” Overall, less than 10 percent of Times traffic comes from social, compared to 60 percent at BuzzFeed. (p. 43)

At the extreme end of the scale, scientists can be reluctant to simply collaborate with the media on a basic level, nonetheless feel comfortable and willing to use social media. Yet the ability to exploit digital for readership has become inescapable. Any organization can learn something from this report, perhaps even using it as a roadmap for their own digital success. Because the New York Times report may be the “one of the key documents of this media age”.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Using Graphics to Tell the Story

It’s such a cliche that I’m reluctant to repeat the adage, but it is so true that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps even more so in the sciences. I have an excellent example of just how true this adage from the last few weeks. In this case, a scientific fact–that mosquitoes are actually, by far, the most deadly creature to humans–was skillfully conveyed via a readily consumable graphic that quickly went viral. How wonderful of an achievement would that be with so many other facts? Especially in an era when so many scientific facts are disputed or questioned.

Originally posted on Gates Notes, The Blog of Bill Gates, on April 24, the simple but ingenious graphic was quickly picked up by many other outlets, including The Washington Post, CBS News, and many more after being tweeted and shared through social media. The end result was that this story stuck around through the end of April, by which many other articles had long disappeared. But what are some of the key points that positioned this graphic to be shared so readily sharable?

1) Shock value–very few people knew that the answer was going to be “mosquito” before they clicked on that link. The element of surprise contributed significantly to a reader’s willingness to share.

2) Simplicity–the graphic itself is very streamlined and easy to follow. All extraneous data was eliminated. The images that were used to represent the different animals were simple and readily identifiable silhouettes.

3) Minimal text–As stated above, the image itself provided much of the data. Actual text was kept to a minimum and used only as necessary, this includes a short title.

4) Snapshot effect–it really only takes a few seconds to convey the entire message of the image.

Graphics can help anyone reach a wider audience. If we can follow the principles outlined above, we can create information that can be used and shared and that, ultimately, has an impact. Unfortunately, however, it’s still unclear on what exactly makes a post go viral, although tips abound. Having an excellent graphic that tells a story is a great start.

Elizabeth Striano


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Lectures Don’t Work for Science

Instinctively, we have all suspected on some level that there must be a better way to teach and share scientific information other than the traditional classroom lecture. Well we now have the science to back that up and approaches to help make some changes!

A new study of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses showed that scores improved approximately 6% when active learning was included in the classroom. It also found that students in “classes with traditional lecturing were 1.5 times more likely to fail than were students in classes with active learning”. The findings applied across all STEM fields and all class sizes.

The study, a meta-analysis of 225 studies of undergraduate STEM teaching methods published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is “the largest and most comprehensive meta-analysis of undergraduate STEM education published to date”.

The authors concluded that when students were active participants rather than passive listeners, they were better able to grasp concepts. Active participation included any activity that required students to engage, from answering questions to collaborating with other students in small groups.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science recently taught a class on using improv to improve understanding of scientific concepts in a presentation-type environment:

“Scientists need to make abstract concepts clear and relevant to any audience they are talking to,” says Lantz-Gefroh. The exercise “is a playful way of getting them to be vivid and expressive when selling a nonsensical idea and then apply those lessons to talking about their real science.”

This course is one of many the Center is using to help scientists communicate better and to “put aside the jargon and connect with the public in language it can understand”. This type of work and investigation points to growing acceptance of the importance of improving public understanding of the science behind issues such as climate change and other complex topics.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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TED Talks and Science: Solution or Problem?

This recent post about the value (or lack of value?) of TED Talks made me laugh. It made me laugh not because of the author’s hyperbole that these talks are the “recipe for civilization disaster” or because they are a “threat to society”. It made me laugh in recognition, because I’ve spoke to several people in the scientific community recently who have told me they want their own “TED Talk”. They want to create one of these TED Talk-type short presentations that explain a complex problem, with the expectation that it will turn into a viral video. And somehow, this viral video will solve their communications challenges.

I always try to explain to them that there is no simple solution: Effectively communicating science is hard work. Hard work that sometimes pays off and, unfortunately, sometimes does not. There is no guarantee.

But these TED Talk-type videos are so enticing. Many people love them and share them as the final word on a given subject. They wax poetic about how one “changed their life” or “altered the way they look at the world”. The truth is a lot more complicated.

First, of course, there is no guarantee that any of these bits will go viral at all. There are hundreds if not thousands of official TED talks and many more from the local TEDx events. Though most of these clips are available online, only a small fraction of them ultimately will go viral. Second, any single approach is just that: one small piece in a much larger strategic plan. A TED talk is fine if it is a small part of a larger, well thought-out communications plan that includes both digital and traditional approaches. But alone, it likely will do very little to elevate understanding. Finally, there is the possibility that these talks ultimately do little to encourage greater understanding.

The author of the post Benjamin Bratton, a visual art professor at University of California-San Diego and presenter at one of the local TEDx event takes the latter a step further and questions whether these talks have any value at all, “[H]ave you ever wondered why so little of the future promised in TED talks actually happens? So much potential and enthusiasm, and so little actual change.”

He says the reason for this disconnect is oversimplification, “To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.”

This really is the key–explaining things in a way that everyone can understand without oversimplification.

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.
Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration”, it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think. More

The entire post really is worth reading, if only to remind ourselves that we can’t be lulled into believing that there is a simple solution to effective science communication, that if we really want to make change we have to be willing to “slog through the hard stuff”.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Responsibilities Expand as Nonprofits Take on Social Media

Recently, I conducted a brief survey using Survey Monkey to assess how social media has changed the structure and function of communications and marketing departments at nonprofit organizations. What I learned was that these departments increasingly have absorbed the role of social media marketers. They have accomplished this task without adding staff, getting training, or developing expertise. Typically, an existing staff member was tasked with these new responsibilities, having little additional knowledge other than active use of personal social media accounts.

I chose nonprofit organizations, in particular, for several reasons: the Washington, D.C. Metro region—where I work—has among the highest concentration nonprofits and associations in the country. These organizations are, in fact, one of the largest employers in the area. (Well behind the federal government and defense contractors, of course.) In addition, I am currently working on a related project for a nonprofit organization. Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, nonprofits are actually among the most intensive users of social media as a marketing tool. Who knew?

A total of 51 individuals working at a nonprofit organization responded; 47 completed the full survey. Most organizations fell into one of two categories: membership-type organizations with either an individual membership (65%) or organizational memberships (50%). More than 90% of respondents focused on issues related to education, healthcare, or policy. The average staff size was 46 full-time individuals.

A full 72% of respondents indicated that their organization had a dedicated communications department, which was either strictly “communications” or a combination of communications, marketing, and/or membership. These communications staff ranged from 1 to 20 fulltime staff, with an average of 5 fulltime staff across all respondents. The most common titles in the department were “communications director” or “vp” (>70%) and “communications manager” (35%).  Almost 30% had a social media manager and/or website manager. Other common titles found in the communications department included an editor (28%); public relations staff (28%); and graphic designer (23%). Approximately 20% also included a marketing director or marketing manager.

Two respondents indicated that all of these roles were held by one person!

The heads of the communications department (typically the director or VP), reported directly to the CEO or executive director of the organization. In some organizations Advocacy Communications and Membership Communications were separate departments answering to those respective directors or VPs.

Although answers to “How has the staffing and structure of the department and its role within the organization changed as a result of social media?” varied greatly, a trend was clear: Existing communications staff typically absorbed most of this new responsibility. Often, an existing position—such as communications manager—was tweaked to focus on social media approximately 50% of the time. Representative responses: “[S]ocial media has become one of six core functions for the department” and “Social media now occupies a large role and takes more time than ever. It’s seen as necessary though and has become part of the job.”

Approximately 25% of respondents indicated that staff had been added to the department to accommodate this increasing role in social media, although infrequently was the position dedicated solely to social media. In fact, a few respondents indicated that a small, dedicated communications staff was added in organizations that previously had not had any staff, in direct response to a need to reach out through social media.

Social media is not, however, always handled by the communications department. In at least two cases, this role is dedicated and resides in the IT department. One respondent said, “Social media is handled by membership and marketing department. Communications did not see it as a priority.”

If respondents could make one change to their departments, the answer was almost unanimously: “Add more staff”! One respondent captured this perfectly: “It’s impossible to serve the membership and wider community without greatly expanding capacity. Everyone’s doing two jobs.” Other common responses to this question included a need for better defined strategic direction in communications and goals; increasing the skill level of existing staff; and a communications audit.

The bottom line likely is familiar to anyone working in a communications capacity: Increasingly, we need to do more with less. Fewer staff, reduced resources, and less money.

Elizabeth Striano
Science writer and editor

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Scientists versus the Media

Recently, I was speaking to an ecologist and researcher who has dedicated his life to successfully protecting ecosystems throughout the United States. The conversation shifted to media coverage of his efforts. He told me about a reporter who had contacted him to ask about one of his projects and how he had instructed the reporter to “educate himself” on the topic before an interview could take place. He followed up by sending the reporter reams of documentation including scientific reports and journal articles. Needless to say, the reporter never called back. A lost opportunity.

Unfortunately, the ecologist/researcher did not see it this way. He did not understand why the reporter did not appreciate the additional information he sent. Or why a reporter would call for an interview without a full understanding of the topic first. There was a note of frustration in his voice, which perfectly captures the divide between scientists and the media.

I think a better understanding of how the media works might have helped significantly in this situation. First, it’s important to understand that most journalists work under severe deadlines — perhaps they have a few hours to complete the story. Or a couple of days, if they’re lucky. There is little to no possibility that the journalist would have had time to slog through reports, articles, and web sites. Particularly technical materials, which will be filled with terminology, acronyms, and other information with which the journalist is unfamiliar.

Second, journalists typically have a broad range of topics that they cover. So even the “science” journalist may cover many topics ranging from nanoparticles to medicine to ecology. There is simply no way that any journalist could be completely knowledgeable about so many fields — no more than any researcher could be.

Finally, the journalist wants to be able to explain to his or her readers the “so what?” about the research. Why should the reader be interested in this research? How does it affect their lives? Often, that information is not captured clearly in any report or article. That information can only come from the researcher.

In this case, a bit more understanding and patience would have gone a long way. At a time when science seems to be playing a rapidly diminishing role in decision-making, I think we need to take every opportunity to bring science to the public as possible.