The best science communication is team science communication.
Science communicators (and I am one of them) are often telling scientists about all the skills they need to learn in order to get their science out there in the world. “You should start a blog, to practice your writing skills,” scientists hear. “Take a workshop on public speaking,” scientists hear. We recommend that scientists take classes or workshops on crafting an elevator pitch, on effective use of social media, on innovative teaching styles, on talking to the media, on public speaking, on how to craft a TED-like talk, on grant writing, and on how to create effective scientific visuals. And scientists do often need these skills to have impact in the scientific community and beyond.
But sometimes I think we forget that any given scientist will never be great at all these things.
Ben Lillie has referred to this as the myth of the omni-competent or the all-talented scientist. When a scientist in the 21st century needs to be an excellent writer, an efficient grant writer, an effective research administrator, an inspiring teacher, an excellent mentor, an engaging speaker, a talented graphic designer, a modern website designer, a performer with a large presence on-stage, a producer of pithy soundbites, a social media guru… something’s gotta give.
Just check out Ben Lillie’s blog post on what goes into a good science talk. It reminds me of a quote from Randy Olson’s new book: “If you want me to speak for an hour I’m ready now; if you want only ten minutes I’ll need a week to prepare.” For a successful popular science talk, a scientist might need dozens of hours of preparation time. To be Neil deGrasse Tyson on Cosmos, any scientist would need hundreds of hours of preparation or practice time. Being a great science communicator takes time and practice – a lot of it.
Before you give up on the idea that scientists can be excellent researchers and contribute to great science communication, though, there might be a solution.
So how do those people master all of those things? The short answer is that they don’t. […] We’re getting used to the idea that science is the product of teams, not lone geniuses. Is it time to start thinking of public science performance as a team production as well? – Ben Lillie
The best science communication is team science communication. Just as interdisciplinary research teams are increasingly needed for the research community to tackle complex scientific questions and problems, collaborative science communication can get any scientist closer to great communication of their science.
Going back to communication training for scientists, I think what scientists don’t hear enough is advice on when, where and how to get help from professionals outside of the scientific research sphere. Professional artists, photographers, videographers, animators, journalists, actors, comedians, novelists and others in the visual and performance arts could do immeasurable good if scientists collaborated with them more to communicate their science. Check out #sciart hashtag on Twitter or Instagram.
Brian Malow, a science comedian who recently has the opportunity to speak at the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and has hosted many science cafes and other science events, says he has "many thousands," of hours of practice on stage, "On the order of that mythical 10,000," or over 25 years performing. "I hosted a daily 2-hr talkshow for 1.5 years, 300 episodes," Malow tweeted. "That was great experience. Doing it often and regularly."
The writers, video producers and lighting experts at TED.com events are, no exaggeration, some of the best in the world at what they do. TED.com video producer Laurie House has eighteen years of documentary filmmaking experience, her work airing on “A&E Biography, ESPN, Fox TV, American Movie Classics, MTV, ABC, NBC, PBS, The History Channel, Animal Planet, Outdoor Life Network, HGTV and [...] in numerous festivals,” according to her website. Check out this impressive list of TED.com staff, which also includes a content distribution team and a social media team. TED even has extensive guidelines for production of TEDx events.
Yes, many of the scientists who speak for TED events deliver fantastic performances. And this is often because they practice a LOT, and have great communication experts coaching them along the way. But why do TED.com talks get millions of views on YouTube, while most any science talk we record ourselves doesn’t, even if we talk about mostly the same stuff? Why are TED.com talks attended by a huge number of diverse people, while most science cafes aren’t? Because a huge team* of professional communicators, coaches, artists, writers, video producers and special effects producers behind every scientist on a TED stage makes their talk as exciting as possible with as wide a reach as possible.
*I learned about this from Ben Lillie, director of The Story Collider and a former writer for TED.com.
There are certainly basic communication skills and tools that most or all scientists should master in order to be effective researchers. Communication is inherent in the process of doing research. It's not just the last step in the scientific process - it's the first. All researchers start new projects and experiments by surveying the literature for what has already been done. For me personally, this "surveying of the literature" includes asking my colleagues on Twitter and other social media channels if they've seen any research studies on X, Y or Z related to the question I'm looking at. I even have a Twitter list for keeping up with other science communication scholars.
Perhaps most importantly, scientists need to be good writers. This includes the ability to build a narrative or story around scientific research, the IMRAD story structure (introduction, methods, results and discussion) being no exception. Being able to tell a story, which involves being able to boil a scientific project down to its key problem(s) and solution(s), also helps scientists become better presenters and speakers. And all scientists should have a working knowledge of effective presentation slide design and visual communication basic principles.
Knowledge is not automatically spread far and wide across a scientific community. Just getting your research results out to other researchers who need to see them takes effort and must involve effective science communication. Watson and Crick's widely-read 1953 paper "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids" described ground-breaking science - but it also told a story.
But I’ve started thinking that there is another skill, which we don’t often talk about, that is vital for scientists when it comes to communicating science. And that is the skill of recognizing when you are in over your head, or when your own communication skills aren’t good enough for what you want to make happen. In other words, scientists should recognize when partnering with a professional communicator or creative could help them achieve their science communication goals.
I recently collaborated with Jen Burgess, a freelance science artist, to create a fine art infographic of one of my research studies. As I was thinking about this particular research study, which looks at who science blog readers are, I realized that it could potentially be of broad interest to science bloggers. There isn't much research out there on who science blog readers are and what motivates them to use science blogs. Bloggers could use this stuff! But just because research findings could be of broad interest, doesn't mean they will be broadly read or engaged with.
That's where science communication comes in. With funds* I had left over from a crowd-funding campaign for research on science blog readers, I decided that I wanted an artist to help me make an accessible and visually engaging graphic with the potential to be widely shared. Because let's face it - most research papers aren't widely shared.
A blog post I wrote featuring that graphic got picked up by Science Magazine news earlier this month. The graphic was also shared many times by others on social media, and many people have commented on the graphic when I've featured it in my research talks over the last month.
In other words - investing in the professional skills of a science artist has helped my research have greater impact (and this is an important point - among a broader audience) than it might have otherwise.
How did I connect with a professional science artist to create a fine art infographic of my research? This is what I wish many other researchers realized: It was incredibly easy to initiate this collaboration. One evening I tweeted, using the #scicomm and #sciart hashtags, that I had some funds and wanted to pay a science artist to create a graphic of my most recent science communication conference paper. I had three e-mails minutes later, with the CVs and portfolios of three talented science artists. I chose to work with Jen Burgess, because her art style fit what I had imagined I wanted.
How to Connect with Creative Professionals
There are many ways to connect with science artists, film-makers, writers and other creative professionals. The first step in this process requires that you have a healthy respect for expertise in communication, science communication and various art-forms. And hopefully after reading this blog post, you do.
In other words, don't expect professional communicators and creatives to work for free. With a relatively small amount of money (compared to scientific equipment costs), you can build payment for communicators and creatives into your research grants or science crowd-funding campaigns. In fact, incorporating these people into your research projects from the get-go might even help you get federal and other research grants.
Finding science communication creative professionals to collaborate with is easier today than ever. I've created a Twitter list of various science and art collaborative exchanges and science artists that you can reach out to. You can also browse Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn for creative professionals who work in the areas of science art (#sciart), science comedy, science in film, etc. I also encourage academic scientists to reach out across their campuses, to find individuals in journalism schools, art and design schools and theatre departments to collaborate with. And if you don't know where to start, talk to the communications staff at your scientific organization or university. I recently wrote a story about a brilliant collaboration between a performance studies professor and a biology professor at LSU. The two worked together to create video portraits of researchers in Antartica based upon historic photographs of the "Heroic Age" of expeditions to the South Pole.
Scientific progress depends on us all working together, and talking well with one another across disciplinary boundaries.
When to Reach Out to Creative Professionals
How do you know when you are "over your head" in science communication, and needing the talent of a creative professional? I think this often comes down to your communication goal, and the audience.
As scientists (and yes, I am a scientist too), we are often communicating with captive audiences. Even students could be considered a captive audience (although I know at one point or another every professor has complained about students not paying attention and playing with their mobile devices). Students must listen, read or otherwise pay attention in order to get a good grade in the classes we teach. Colleagues at research conferences are a captive audience. Other researchers in our field who read our papers are mostly a captive audience. Not only are they passionate about scientific research related to their fields, but they must* read papers to fill out their own literature reviews.
*I credit this concept of a captive audience partly to Daniela Schiller, who I heard talk about captive audiences in science recently at a conference.
Broader publics are NOT captive audiences. They will click away, browse away, or drop their heads to their phones the second our articles, blog posts or science talks become boring. And without effective science communication, we will never get these audiences to our articles, blog posts or science talks in the first place.
I would argue that the minute a scientist or researcher considers communicating with a broader audience, or an audience outside of their scientific peers, they should consider collaborating with professional creatives. Because when it comes to communicating with non-scientists, most scientists are in over their heads.
Advice for Working with Creative Professionals
If you are interested in this idea of scientists working with creative professionals, check out the Storify of tweets below, in which I ask scientists and science communicators on Twitter for advice and ideas on this topic.
Bethann Merkle says that the best science and art collaborations bring artists in early during a project. This isn't just to make science "pretty," but to enhance the reach and impact of scientific research and to foster conversations with broader audiences.
Steph Januchowski-Hartley says that you can gauge the need to reach out to professional creatives vs. creating science communication materials yourself by the amount of time and effort you as a scientist would need to put in compared to what could be achieved via collaboration.
"Experienced creators will be adept at playing with concepts in different ways. Try lots, see what resonates." - Glendon Mellow, science illustrator
"Go see some art together, go see some science together - find some common humanity." - Erinma Ochu
*Update July 23: Edited to avoid misrepresenting the financial cost of working with a professional artist.