Science Communication- Tips from Pros at UC Davis on April 10th 2017

Last week I had the privilege of attending a full day ‘Science Communication‘ workshop at UC Davis.  I have a long history of appreciating those skilled in communicating science as I idolize many science writers (shout out to Carl Zimmer),  look forward to my monthly National Geographic issues and spent many rainy days during my childhood watching wildlife shows through the Discovery Channel ( especially David Attenborough’s films!).  However, I do not feel that I have reached my potential in the art of science communication (particularly to the general public)- and I think many other scientists share this sentiment.

Thus I am excited to share some of the tidbits that I learned about science communication (You can find the full presentations and recordings here: Link)

In the morning we started out with Kat Kerlin (Press officer and Science Writer for UC Davis) and her talk on ‘Communicating Science, Creating Trust: Can You Take a Message’ … with key take homes being: 1) have a CLEAR message and know your message, 2) combine your personal and professional work to make it more appealing to others, 3) don’t just discuss the general trends of your work, but give specific examples to tell a story- (ie: How is something specific impacted by something general?), 4) start with the impact/importance of your work before you get to the nitty-gritty and the background of your study system, 5) use analogies to describe your work to people that might be unfamiliar with your study system , 6) share your enthusiasm!, 7) create trust by forming people to people connections.

Next we had a social media specialist Sallie Poggie (Social Media Strategist for UC Davis) on “Effectively Using Social Media for Science Communications”. A couple take homes I took from Sallie were: 1) you don’t have to engage with trolls, and not all trolls are real people (some are bots!), 2) if you do engage on social media: “you should have ‘Elephant skin, and velvet gloves’ – you need thick skin and roll with the punches”, 3) make sure that the messages you are delivering translate to the community that you are speaking to (Ie – speak or write in spanish if you are speaking/writing to a hispanic community),  3) social media- such as twitter, is a way to self publish your findings and reach out to the masses- it can also direct attention to your work, result in new connections and potentially a job,  4) understand the social media platform that you are using, and use your privacy settings wisely, 5) don’t publish something unless you are ok with millions of people reading it and having your name attached to it for the rest of your life…. (dang!).

Jim Sanchirico (Professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, and Associate Director of the Coastal and Marine Science Institute at UC Davis) then discussed integrating science and policy, and different platforms where this occurs. Regarding the current climate of politics and science-he discussed that one way we can protect our science is to diversify the funds to our science (i.e. don’t just rely on federal funds).

Tessa Hill: (Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Davis) Also discussed that: Really meaningful communications is not just dumping information but requires making a dialogue, and doing a lot of listening, key in our communication skills. Meet others where they are at- speak in their language (ie – don’t just use your jargon).


For the afternoon sessions we had the choice to attend many different workshops with hands-on activities. You can see the recordings of all of the workshops here (Even if you are busy-I highly recommend viewing these while you stretch and condition in the mornings!.. oh am I the only one that does that?)

I decided to attend the following workshops:

  1.  “Media Relations” with Andy Fell (Associate Director of News and Media Relations) & Kat Kerlin (Environmental Content Provider), News and Media Relations, UC Davis Strategic Communications.  
    • First Key Take Home Message: IF THE MEDIA CONTACTS YOU – YOUR MEDIA RELATIONS TEAM AT YOUR UNIVERSITY CAN HELP YOU PREPARE BEFORE YOU TALK TO THEM- YOU ARE NOT IN THIS ALONE. I typed that in all caps because I had no idea that we had this type of support at our fingertips as scientists! SO.. what do you do when you get a phone call? Just ask if you can call them back in 10 minutes. “Then use that 10 minutes to go ahead and call your media relations team and get your thoughts together with the help of some pros! Also some time-sensitive issues to think about: when someone says they need something soon to a scientist – we think “ok, Ill have it in a week”… When someone says they need something soon to a journalist… they think “ok, Ill have it in a hour!”. Time is of the Essence! Just something to consider, since they will move on to someone else eventually if you don’t call them back when you say you will.
    • Second Key Take Home Message: its ok to self -advertise- if you think you have something good/interesting – go ahead and tell your media relations team about it.. especially if it has just been accepted for publication (before it comes out online or in print). On the same note, a friend at the conference told me a pro-tip!: Go ahead and type up your own press-release – it might save them time and get your foot in the door a little bit easier….
    • Third Key Take Home Message: Make sure you can discuss your work clearly and effectively. We practiced writing and pitching the following: The problem, why others should care, and solutions. We did this without getting bogged down in the details and without using jargon.
  • Next I attended the workshop: “Tell Me a story: Writing for a Wide Audience” by Katie Rodger (Lecturer in the University Writing Program at UC Davis).
    • She had some great advice on ‘who’ is in a lay audience- and noted that a wide audience includes other scientists from your field, other professionals (including scientists) from outside your field, and then the general public (including kids). When you write for the general public you don’t want to dumb things down (people will be insulted), but note that because the general public includes younger folks (who spend a lot of time on the internet these days)- you want to consider an average reading level at a 5th grade level.
    • So how do we write for a lay audience? She suggested to Tell a story with a Narrative structure: beginning, middle and end. The beginning comprises of the current or past situation (why do we need to do the research we are doing?). The middle comprises of “What did we do?”. Finally, the end concludes with “What happened or will happen?”.
    • She also discussed how to give an elevator pitch: 1) What you do and why you do it, 2) How and why this matters to your field/profession, and 3) How and why this matters to your reader or listener.  
    • Last, she discussed the opportunities we have as scientists to communicate our research. These opportunities include: 1) At work: Narrative Resumes/CVs, Newsletters, Presentations, Conferences; 2) In the community: School Programs, Professional and Networking groups, and Science Cafes, and 3)
  • For my final workshop, I attended: VISUAL STORYTELLING- Using Video to Amplify Your Work; John Mournier and Joe Proudman, UC Davis Strategic Communications”, with approaches on using videos to document and broadcast one’s research, and some tips and tricks to help these videos stand out.
    • A key take home from this workshop was to make sure that you are constantly collecting video footage and photos from your research and work so that you can make a fantastic ‘b-roll’. A what?! Yes.. a B-roll… first time I heard that word too!

Overall it was an awesome and informative day. I even was able to use a couple of the tips and tricks for my presentation at the UC Davis Postdoctoral Research Symposium two days later!

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