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Successful Science Communication Starts With a Strategy

science-communication strategy

Communicating complex scientific topics to non-scientists can leave the communicator and audience frustrated. However, scientists who create communication strategies to get onto the same level as their audience can achieve better results. (Image by Jennifer Gordon, Ph.D.)

By Jennifer R. Gordon, Ph.D.

Jennifer R. Gordon, Ph.D.

Jennifer R. Gordon, Ph.D.

Raise your hand if you have ever been in a situation like this: You sit down at the Thanksgiving table, and your aunt asks, “What have you been up to these days for work?” You instantly launch into a short version of your thesis proposal seminar—getting into the intricacies of determining the molecular mechanisms of organophosphate resistance in populations of Culex quinquefasciatus. You feel proud of your work and excited to talk about it. Unfortunately, everyone at the table is staring at you with a blank face, and you know you have lost them.

I know I have been there. That is why I now practice and plan how I communicate a scientific topic based on my target audience and the goal I want to achieve.

We communicate science every day: to our peers, the media, friends, families, and strangers on the internet. And, in turn, these same folks and many more communicate science to us. In theory, science communication is just sharing knowledge on a science-related topic. But successful science communication can be less straightforward than we realize.

To achieve the highest impact, ideally, one should package a science message based on the audience and the goal. Without considering these two factors, you may stumble into making a mistake like the one described above and lose your audience. In that scenario, I wanted to convince a new group of people the importance of my work and gain their interest. However, I approached them the same way I approached my proposal seminar. As a result, I was not on the same level with the audience and did not achieve my goal.

However, when you spend the time developing a science-communication strategy before creating a science-communication product, you can get onto the same level as your audience and achieve much better results. Generally, you would not perform a scientific experiment without writing at least a rough draft of a protocol. So, why communicate that science without creating a similar plan? Granted, you do not always have the luxury of time to create a strategy before talking about your work, but when you do, you can often achieve better results.

Like anything, developing a science communication strategy can be hard, especially the first few times. To help, my colleagues Meaghan Pimsler, Ph.D., science and technology policy fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Clare Rittschof, Ph.D., assistant professor at the University of Kentucky; Erin Cadwalader, Ph.D., director of strategic initiatives at the Entomological Society of America; and I created a workshop for the 2021 ESA Annual Meeting to teach entomologists how to craft their very own science communication strategies. Below, I share the framework we used and some additional questions that will help you develop an impactful science-communication strategy every time.

Science-Communication Strategy Framework

1. TOPIC: What is the topic of your communication strategy?

  • Be as specific and succinct as possible.

2. AUDIENCE: Who is your audience?

  • Do you have one or multiple audiences?
  • Are there any communication barriers such as language or trust?
  • What are their values and priorities?
  • What might you have in common with the audience?

3. IMPACT: Why is this topic important to your audience?

  • Make it personal to the audience.
  • How does it impact them?
  • What does the audience already know about the topic?
  • Where did they probably learn that?

4. GOAL: What are your communication goals?

  • Defining goals can be particularly tricky, but they may include policy change, behavior change, adoption of a new product, etc.
  • Be specific and break it down into smaller, measurable steps. Include an estimated, reasonable timeline.
  • Consider the SMART goals system: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely

5. MESSAGE: What is your message?

  • Identify three to five specific points that you want your audience to respond to or remember.
  • Note: The more information you try to get people to remember, the more likely they will forget everything.

6. LOGISTICS: How will you get your message to your audience?

  • What format will you use to deliver the message? Writing, comics, pictures, video, spoken, digital, fliers, etc.?
  • How will you overcome the barriers identified in step 2?
  • What outlet will you use to deliver the message? Radio, social media, billboard, festival, small meeting, etc.?
  • Who will deliver the message? You? A trusted community member? A translator?

7. EVALUATION: How will you measure success?

  • This is your efficacy data. Possible metrics could be number of subscribers, change in policy, survey responses, number of questions, etc. Or, it could be specific changes in behavior relevant to your subject.
  • Some evaluation metrics may be long term or short term (SMART).
  • Intermediate steps may have their own evaluation (SMART).

8. STRATEGY: How will you take all the information from steps 1-7 to create your plan of action?

  • This does not need to be long or even complete sentences. A bulleted list is fine.

The framework above will help you create a science-communication strategy and increase your success rate at achieving your science-communication goals. With any strategy development, the more time you can dedicate the better; however, if you spend even an hour creating a strategy, you should see improved results. For even better strategies, gather a diverse group of people to help you brainstorm, because diversity of thought leads to innovative ways to tackle a problem. And, if you still need help creating your science-communication strategy, consider hiring a facilitator to host a workshop. With a little bit of planning and practice, anyone can achieve their science-communication goals and avoid the blank faces at Thanksgiving.

Jennifer R. Gordon, Ph.D., is founder and principal consultant at Bug Lessons Consulting, LLC, and an alumna of the ESA Science Policy Fellows program. Email: jennifer@buglessons.com.

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