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Your message is in your hands

Opinion | Researchers
Your message is in your hands

Integrity in science communication: how can you be sure that communication won’t change your message?

Only last week I went to a talk by a widely respected scientist. He started his presentation with “just bear with me, it will all become clear.” My heart sank. A promise too often broken. He is without a doubt at the top of his research field, but I knew from that one introductory point I was in for a long thirty minutes ahead. 

Scientists are often apprehensive that when they simplify a topic, they are trading a slice of their integrity along with it. That is a mistake. SciComm experts agree that your message should be simple and easy to understand. If you know what you want to tell your audience and why, then they are much more likely to leave with that concept clearly in their minds. 

Your message: a one-liner 

Whenever you enter any type of communication activity, from an interview with a journalist to writing a blog article, you should go in with a plan. What do you want your audience to remember? This is your message. Your primary goal is to be understood. So, whilst your message will be based on fact, in most cases it will not contain specific scientific evidence.

TED Talks, successfully rack up millions of views online on a regular basis. Many of them are about topics in science or technology. What makes them so successful is the strength of the messages they convey, without deforming the facts. In each talk, limited to just 18 minutes, the speaker must deliver an idea “worth spreading”. Just one. Once you have your idea, you can then build your talk, article or even tweet around it with facts, data and a good storyline.

In a blog article about crash diets, Head of Research Communications at Diabetes UK, Dr. Emily Burns used this tagline, “TV programs don’t prove scientific theories. Scientific research does”. Her two (very) short sentences are clear. Even though she provides an evidence-based argument in her written piece, she rightly chose not to complicate her take-home message with those nitty-gritty details.  

Simple does not mean wrong 

Like many scientists, you may share that fear of “dumbing down”. As if, by simplifying an explanation, the message is somehow no longer true. On the contrary, a simple, clear message cannot easily be deformed or misinterpreted because there is just less room for interpretation. You can cite or reference factual work to support your argument if you wish, but don’t let them distract from your main idea. In his communication skills series, science presenter Greg Foot even goes so far as to argue that if you “try to explain everything, [then] you explain nothing.” Pick what is important to say and cut the rest.

Professor of cognitive neuroscience Sophie Scott (UCL) studies what happens to our brain when we laugh. Whilst it sounds like a fun topic, at first glance it does not necessarily seem like it is of global importance. In a 2017 interview, she explained that “laughter in evolution is associated with social bonding and play”. By putting her topic in the context of a vital evolutionary adaptation, she tells her audience why they should care in simple terms whilst staying true to her body of scientific evidence. 

Get your message right

You are the expert. You have all the knowledge you need to talk about your topic. But you should also know that you have control over what you say and how you say it. With a punchy, concise message your audience will understand you better. Define it. Make it clear. That way, instead of “bearing with you” we will be following you through all the way to the end, with your integrity fully intact. 

To conclude, just remember that a simple message does not mean a simple body of scientific evidence supporting your argument. You can be clear and concise about your research, whilst staying true to the facts. 

This blog post is distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC-BY). The illustration is by Hindawi and is also CC-BY.

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