“If you cannot explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” –Albert Einstein
We, as scientists, spend a lot of time and effort on our experiments. However, we don’t spend much time as we should be in communicating our science. As an attempt to reconcile this, I grabbed one of the only seats left at the generously populated CoNNECT seminar series. The CoNNECT (Cultivating Narrative for Effective Communication) program is a pilot course in science communication for UTSW trainees. The goal of the program is to teach biomedical trainees to clearly explain their work and its significance through narrative, or storytelling. This seminar was on “How to design an effective talk” by Dr. Shannon Behrman, Associate Director of Scientific Training and Education at iBiology. Based at University of California, San Francisco, iBiology is a nonprofit organization that produces free videos and online courses about life science research.
Dr. Behrman captured the audience’s attention in the first 2 minutes of her talk when she said “We are all wired to like stories and storytelling. So let us use that to our advantage!” The seminar was fun, educational, and filled with helpful ways to design talks for communicating science effectively. For the next hour, Dr. Behrman eloquently demonstrated to the audience why it is so important for us to invest time into communicating science. She was met with approving nods from the audience. At the end, I was so motivated by her talk that I began working on my talk that was due in 12 months.
If you are interested to know more about Dr. Behrman and her journey as a science communicator, read this interview.
What motivated you to take up science communication as a career?
As a young girl, I was fascinated by science. Instead of playing with Barbie dolls, I spent my time with microscopes and exploring the outdoors. During my college years, I nurtured my interest in science by doing an undergraduate research project in a plant biology lab at University of California, Berkeley. I enjoyed it so much, I then went on to pursue my doctoral degree in biochemistry at University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). In graduate school, I got an opportunity to teach science as a volunteer in local K-12 classrooms through the organization Science and Health Education Partnership (SEP). I was thrilled to teach and interact with children about science. When I saw their faces light up with excitement during science demonstrations and presentations, I felt extremely fulfilled. This experience crystallized my intention to communicate science to people in terms that they understand and appreciate.
What are the most common mistakes that young scientists today make while communicating their science? What is your advice to them?
Scientists often fail to highlight the significance of their work during their talks. I would encourage scientists to talk about the significance of their work upfront. Story telling technique is an excellent way to communicate your science- narrate it as if you are telling a story. In that case, what are the most important features of a story that will keep you hooked?
Plot – Communicate with your audience upfront, preferably in the first 5 minutes why your research matters.
Connect – It is extremely important to know your audience before you begin preparing your presentation and make appropriate modifications based on this information.
Flavor – Research suggests that humans have a maximum attention span of 45 minutes or less. Combine this with the constant distractions from our ever-demanding devices; our attentional circuits are fighting a losing battle. For this very reason, make sure that you do not inundate your audience with excessive data and descriptions on your slides. Include just enough information to support and validate your plot line. Just in case, include a couple of hidden slides with extra experimental details if your audience should have further questions.
Another related common mistake is a lack of confidence. Young scientists especially tend to undersell themselves and their work. In the end, you have to realize that, in a room of full of people gathered to listen to you speak, oftentimes you are the best versed with the subject matter. Therefore, speak with confidence and present your work with a sense of pride.
What are your recommendations for young scientists who are interested in pursuing science communication as a career?
There is no one set path to a career in science communication, and it is up to each individual to carve their own way. I advise scientists to take the initiative in developing new skills. For example, take classes on science communication, enroll in writing workshops, contribute to a science blog, mentor in the lab or teach in a classroom. Also, explore a range of career opportunities by talking to people! Informational interviews are a great way to connect with people in the field and build your network. Plus, one-on-one chats in a casual setting are much less daunting than large “networking” events (at least for the introverted, like myself).
I also recommend doing an internship or fellowship. It’s a great transition away from doing bench work. Internships provide “on-the-job-training” that will allow you to intensely develop skills you need, while also exploring a career in the field. Shortly after I finished graduate school, I moved to Washington DC to participate in the Health Communications Fellowship Program at National Cancer Institute. This fellowship was instrumental in launching my career in science communication and education. It gave me the opportunity to hone my writing skills, learn how to write and design science related content in an online space, build a greater understanding of careers in science communication, and expand my network in the field.
What are your key responsibilities as an Associate Director of Scientific Training and Education at iBiology?
I produce online courses for life scientists to help them develop the necessary skills and establish a healthy mindset to do good science. At iBiology we have a very collaborative environment that allows everyone to utilize their skills while still working effectively as a team. During my time here, I have worked with multiple teams and assisted them with location scouting for shooting science videos, video editing, organizing the production and camera crew, developing interview questions and surveys, designing course structures and tracking students’ progress, marketing and promotional strategy development. Depending on the project timeline, I could be working with any one of these times ensuring that things are done and deadlines are met. The best part about my job is that my creative and science spirit are in perfect harmony at all times.
If you structure your talk with the aforementioned framework and narrate it with confidence by bringing your humanity, building suspense and keeping your message simple – you can be rest assured that your talk did not come with free passes to snoozeville. Go on scientists, get your communication on and hone those speaking skills to wow your audience at your next big talk.