A few days ago, I was asked to articulate my “rules” for effective science communication.
I don’t actually have a check-list for developing science communications (and I’m not sure that a rigid check list would be such a good idea). But I do have an informal (and until now not clearly articulated) framework that informs how I communicate, whether I’m being asked to comment on something with just a few minutes notice, or crafting an article or video from the ground up.
This has evolved over the years, and reflects my professional experiences, my personal ethos and values, and – importantly – my responsibilities and ethic as an academic and an educator.
Being asked about my “rules” got me reflecting on this informal framework, and how to articulate what’s important to me and why, as I communicate about and around science.
The result was the (personal) guiding “questions” below (I formerly referred to them as “principles, but they’re really just a bunch of questions). They’re admittedly a little earnest-sounding. But that aside, they do capture what goes through my head when I put on my communication hat.
What is the purpose of the communication?
Am I primarily setting out to engage, educate, or inform my audience?
What do I want to achieve through this communication? (This will depend on the state of the science and messaging, and so is iterative with points further below)
Who is my target audience?
Who am I primarily communicating with, and why?
Who else will this communication be useful to and used by?
Are there unintended audiences that may not find the communication helpful, and how will I balance their perceptions and responses with my primary audience?
What is the state of the science?
What is known, and what is not?
What is the weight of evidence around the topic?
Where is there science-based consensus?
Where is there uncertainty, and what sort of uncertainty is it?
Are there respected scholars with differing/nuanced understandings of the science? What weight/respect should I place on differences in understanding and interpretation?
What is the context around the state of the science – is it in flux, or is it stable? Is the framing around the science robust and generally accepted, or are there important limitations to this framing? Is the state of the science artificially constrained to make it look as if it’s well-established?
Are there biases and vested interests that may skew the state of the science or its interpretation and presentation?
What is the broader social and economic context within which the science fits? How is this relevant to the intended audience?
What is my message?
What’s the primary message I want to convey to my audience?
What do I want my audience to know, understand, be aware of, or do, as a result of the communication?
What is my responsibility to my audience?
What approaches to conveying this message will work well?
What medium and platform should I use?
What tone should I use?
What style of communication is likely to work well – e.g. instructional, informational, formal, informal, humorous etc?
How do I build empathy and connect with my audience?
How do I indicate to my audience that I am trustworthy?
What’s my narrative?
What is the narrative structure and thread that will most effectively support my message?
How will I frame the narrative? And how will I ensure that framing doesn’t mislead the audience, or lead to misinterpretation?
What should be left out of the narrative?
Is my narrative relevant, engaging and useful to my audience?
Is my communication likely to be interesting and engaging to the intended audience?
What are the potential pitfalls of the approach taken?
Could my communication approach lead to misunderstanding and misguided action that might be avoided?
Will communication tailored to one audience adversely impact other audiences? If so, how can any adverse impacts be appropriately reduced, and where are the tradeoffs?
Will my communication make future effective communication more difficult and less effective?
Is there a danger that my communication primarily serves interests other than those of my target audience?
Does the approach taken undermine or conflict with my professional responsibilities and values?
Is the communication primarily about me, or my audience?
These reflect my personal approaches to science communication – and especially how I view my responsibilities to my audience as an academic and an educator.
They’re not for everyone. And they aren’t relevant – or even appropriate – for every context within which science communication happens.
But for academics and educators who communicate with audiences beyond the classroom (and anyone with an interest in the nature of such communication), they may be of interest.
With the proviso of course that they are, at the end of the day, just a guide.
A little more context …
How someone approaches science communication is highly dependent on the context they are working within – what their profession is, who they work for, who they represent, what their aims are, what their values and beliefs are, whether they are part of a larger communications campaign or strategy, and so on.
For me, my approach to science communication is deeply rooted in my profession as an educator, scholar and scientist, and the personal and professional values that are part and parcel of this.
I am a professor at a public university, with all of the expectations and responsibilities that this entails, and this profoundly impacts my attitude toward and approach to science communication. As an educator, I have a deep responsibility to the students I mentor and teach – one that is based on my credibility as an expert, my trustworthiness as an instructor, the respect I show my students, and my commitment to placing their education first.
This is a responsibility that requires that I am equitable and courteous; that I am committed to truth and honesty; that I value scholarship, enlightenment and empowerment; that I recognize my limitations, and the expertise and insights of others; and that I listen to and engage with my students with empathy and humility.
To me, this responsibility extends to public audiences. Here, as an educator and communicator, I believe I have a duty of care toward those whom I engage with that echoes that which I have toward my students.
To treat audiences with less respect than I treat my students would undermine my trustworthiness, credibility and effectiveness as an educator.