The Art of Science Communication: we are “Science Communication” Communicators

In the trapsing over the countryside to various schools I get a lot of time in the car to remember about unpaid bills, fret whether my son loves me, and to come up with new and interesting blasphemies to swear at the stupid drivers on the road.  Now and then I actually think over what I do for a career, and start to analyse that day’s presentation.  I rake over its bones trying to figure out where it worked, where it maybe failed, and on the odd occasions, what made it sizzle.

To get this straight in my head I’m going to start getting elements of it down here.  Also to offer it up for others to for questions, comments or observations.

Observation number one:  We’re in the business of Science Communication Communication.  On the face of it that seems like a terrible tautology, but bear with me a sec.  Not only are we presenting an idea, observation, piece of fact that not only has the audience go “Gosh that was interesting/exciting/morally ambigious”, but also want, at the soonest opportunity, to go and tell someone else about it.

Let me tell you what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean like that kid in your class who doesn’t play sport, usually has his nose in a book during lunchtime, and delights in using big words like “dioxyribonuclaic acid” in grade five.  You know the kid I mean.  You all went to school with him.  Except for me: I was that kid.  This kid gets his feelings of importance through knowing the obscure stuff that the rest of the class doesn’t know, which is fine if you want to rub someone else’s nose in your knowledge, but kind of crap for teaching it.

These days I think hard about the one take home message that the rest of the presentation can  hang off.  This message is preferrably one, but at most three, sentences that I try to drum into the audience Derren Brown-style.  For instance, a presentation on energy and its uses may have its take home message as “Energy doesn’t come out of thin air, it has to come from somewhere”, and from that hang ideas of types of energy and conservation of energy.  When the audience heads home that afternoon and is discussing the day’s schooling with parents over cookies and a glass of milk, the Sentence can then launch out of their beautiful minds like a sparkelling gold Easter egg.  Here the rest of the session can be reaccounted around the Sentence, including the really cool bit where the presenter explodes a bottle full of volitile vapour and burns himself.  Or something.

The idea about the single idea is that it lowers the bar of entry for retelling the story.  It’s clear and unambigious, but most importantly it’s not “dumbing it down”.  It allows those audience members who have a better grasp on the material to talk about it later without resorting to big, scary words, without cutting out other students who may be new to the material.

And if nothing else, it gives the presenter a single ancor to build the presentation around without turning it into a “Shopping List Show”, which is something I’ll launch into next time.