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Wednesday
Apr022014

It isn't rocket science

Alan Alda at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating ScienceWell, maybe it is. Or perhaps it's brain surgery you are trying to explain. But no matter how complex the information, if you want your message to be understood (by listeners other than your lab partners or co-authors), you need to explain it to them in words they will understand. You need to define your terms, even for other scientists.

Luckily, there are people who can teach you how to do that. You will find some of them at the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, where they offer a curriculum using improvisation and other communications techniques drawn from actor-training and journalism. And the lessons there are very real: one of the Center's programs is the global Flame Challenge, the goal of which is explaining science to an 11-year old. A practical exercise for scientists to routinely undertake.
 
As you may have read in my latest blog, I am increasingly concerned that researchers and experts of all types are failing to communicate big, complex ideas to the public, just at a time when the public really needs this information. An expert who has a great story to share needs to reach out and meet listeners halfway, not just speak in jargon and insider-language, and "hope" the audience will get it.

Facts can't really speak for themselves
Barbara Kingsolver's excellent 2012 novel Flight Behavior revolves around a huge, untold story that is hiding in plain sight. The novel's central tension is between Dellarobia, a resident of a small, rural town experiencing "global climate wierding" and Ovid, the scientist who arrives to research one of its showiest consequences. Ovid balks at trying to explain the causes and consequences of climate change, so Dellarobia becomes his de facto spokesperson. She must communicate news no one wants to hear. And she is determined to get things right, working hard to understand what is really going on so she can clearly relay the message.

That is what happens in this novel. But in real life, teachable spokespeople do not often just happen along when you need them. However, real life offers what the novel does not. If you are a scientist, a researcher, or an expert whose arguments are based in data and statistics, you are in luck! Places like the Alan Alda Center and independant communications coaches like me are available to help you tell your story to a larger audience. Facts, by themselves, speak only to those who know their language. If you want others to understand them, you need to learn to be their translators.

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