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So, you’ve been asked to talk to the public: lessons from COVID-19 news coverage

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What scientists can learn from pandemic communication failures.

Guest post by Caitlin Simopoulos, Joseph Tolsma, and Elisabeth Marnik


Science communication is more important than ever. The world is constantly being updated on scientific data such as newly emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants and results from vaccine clinical trials. With social media at everyone’s fingertips, research is communicated from scientists to the public rapidly, making conspiracy stories hard to separate from the science. Sometimes we read articles in newspapers that make it seem like the media just doesn’t “get it.” As scientists, why do our messages get so lost in translation? And what can we do about it? 

It turns out that scientists think they communicate with the public more often than they actually do. In addition, a study found that scientists may be perceived as competent, but they’re also seen as lacking warmth, leading to being labeled as “untrustworthy.”  Many people who are interested in science rely on information from people they trust, like reporters on the news or friends on social media, where the information isn’t always right.

You may remember the study out of Duke University where the authors presented an affordable and efficient method to test mask efficacy. This study quickly gained popularity for one reason: the unsupported worry that wearing a neck gaiter is worse than wearing no mask at all. Soon after publication, there was an explosion of news articles focusing on the possible problems with wearing neck gaiters as face coverings, leading to the study authors having to clarify their results with the media. 

This type of miscommunication isn’t isolated. Misleading and unclear communication surrounding the AstraZeneca/Oxford coronavirus vaccine has led to delays in vaccine rollouts and low confidence in the efficacy of the vaccine. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggun publicly declined the Johnson & Johnson vaccine allotment for his city, citing unsupported claims that other vaccines are superior.  

Even outside of the pandemic, science communication fails. For example, the conversation around climate change has been dubbed the “largest science communication failure in history.” A recent poll of Americans shows that only 17% of study participants believe that climate scientists have concluded that global warming is human-caused. Understanding how to be an effective communicator is an important part of a scientist’s job. 

Don’t get too discouraged. We can work to improve communicating our science to the public. One of the best ways to improve your own science communication is by watching others who are doing it well. The core goal of scientific communication is to equip people with fact-based information that will help them make informed decisions. But facts alone aren’t enough; there must be a narrative to engage the audience  For example, this article from journalist Shannon Hall details the state of Arctic sea ice, new discoveries about marine life during winter months, and the importance of new data for climate models. However, the story being told focuses on the lives of the research team while isolated in the Arctic for months. The story itself is interspersed with dramatic images from the Arctic darkness. This piece also emphasizes the passion that the researchers have for their work in a way that facts alone could not. In short, it demonstrates that scientists care, and it encourages the reader to care as well. 

Of course, we don’t always have the advantage of dramatic footage and polar bears on our front porch. We can still let our personalities shine through—that can even help with your perceived trustworthiness! Together, Siouxie Wiles and Toby Morris created a number of playful graphics that communicated the importance of physical distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic and helped explain the ongoing research. These viral cartoons avoid jargon while telling a story of how and why various preventive measures are important…all while encouraging the reader to “keep up with your own slice of cheese”.

Keep in mind that science communication within your sphere of influence takes time. Trust takes time to earn and begins with developing a relationship with your audience. Extend your own trust to the public that is trying to learn, and don’t be afraid to admit errors! The audience we reach won’t necessarily be the same for all of us. For example well-known science communicators Katie Mack and Katherine Hayhoe don’t reach the exact same audience. However, both use their genuine personalities to resonate with an audience with which they find some common ground, building trust over time. Go out and find your niche!

Here are some tips for talking to the public that will help you get your message across effectively: 

  1. Prune down your concepts: Often scientists want to show how much work they did to get to a particular finding. This may be appropriate when giving your dissertation defense or a talk to experts in your field, but this will lead to losing your audience if you’re talking to the public. When talking to a general audience make sure you focus on only the core findings fundamental to your work. If possible, only have one or two main takeaway points and avoid mentioning things that are not related and can be taken out of context. 
  1. Keep it short: Research shows that 20 minutes is the perfect length for a talk that won’t lose the audience’s attention. This is why TED talks are 18 minutes long. So, when possible, keep your talks to the public shorter, and perhaps use the extra time to answer questions and interact with the audience directly. 
  1. Know your audience: Tailor your talk specifically to those you are talking to. If you’re meeting with a group of fourth graders make sure you check with parents and teachers of that age group to remember what things are reasonable for them to know and understand. If you’re talking to adults who are non-scientists, don’t be tempted to throw in jargon just because they’re older. It is better to simplify concepts as much as possible to ensure you’re not losing your audience. If you’re talking to a group with a specific common interest, for example, young students who want to be scientists, relate the topics to them and why they should care. 
  1. Use analogies and stories: When possible, make the topic personal by incorporating stories from your own life or stories related to the concepts being discussed. When explaining difficult concepts, use analogies that relate the concepts to things people are exposed to more often. 
  1. Make it interactive: Those of us who teach know that the education world is abuzz with active learning. Students learn better by being active participants in the process. This is also true for talks. If you make your talk interactive the audience members are less likely to sneak peeks at their phone or lose interest. Some great ways of incorporating interactive elements are to ask a question and have audience members spend a minute or two talking to the people next to them. You can also take polls through a show of hands or phone polling apps. Other great interactive tips can be found here!

Ultimately, the best talks to the public are ones where the scientist is having fun while talking. Their excitement over the topic comes through. So, make sure you allow your passion about the topic to shine, and don’t be afraid to infuse your personality. You are the expert, you just need to distill your knowledge in a way that is understandable.


About the authors:

Caitlin Simopoulos headshot

Caitlin Simopoulos is a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Ottawa who studies the gut microbiome through computational biology. She also aspires to make science accessible to everyone. Connect with Caitlin via email, or on Twitter.

Joseph Tolsma headshot

Joseph Tolsma is a graduate student at North Carolina State University who studies plant gravitropism and the circadian clock using time course imaging and RNA sequencing. He is passionate about engaging undergraduates in accessible research that results in real progress. You can contact him via email at jsjoseph@ncsu.edu

Elisabeth Marnik headshot

Elisabeth Marnik is an Assistant Professor at Husson University. Marnik is a member of the GSA’s Conference Childcare Committee and a past member and current advisor of the GSA Early Career Leadership Program’s Communication and Outreach Subcommittee. You can find Elisabeth on instagram, FB or twitter.

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