In this issue

Science communication with diverse audiences

Tips for graduate students on ways to share their research.

By Victoria Marino and Deanna Dragan

Effective science communication with diverse audiences involves translating complex information into a language and format that non-experts can understand. It is a difficult but valuable competency for graduate students pursuing a career in adult development and aging to develop. However, many graduate students lack training in communicating research to the public. Most of our formal training focuses on communicating research to our scientific peers via academic manuscripts, poster presentations, conference talks and grant proposals. Here we discuss outlets and tools for communicating research to diverse audiences such as the general public, community stakeholders and policymakers and give tips for graduate students wanting to develop skills in this area.

What science communication outlets and tools should graduate students utilize?

Kuehne and colleagues (2015) recommend the following traditional and non-traditional outlets and tools for graduate students to communicate research beyond their academic peers:

  • Electronic media: websites and social media, podcasts and YouTube, personal blog, contribution to widely read blog.
  • Print media: letter to the editor, opinion article, print or specialty article.
  • Policy communications: agency talk, newsletter for agency, contact policymakers.
  • Traditional public outlets: talk to special interest group, newsletter for special interest group, public talk, interview with university media or local media.

They suggest considering your target audience and goals of the communication when selecting among these tools. Goals for communication might be improving your skills in writing or public speaking or increasing science literacy in the general public. Regarding social media, Twitter has been one of the most successful platforms for increasing visibility and has been strongly recommended. Researchers can tweet about various subjects such as their recent research findings, opinions on a study, news relevant to their field and new developments in the field.

What are some tips for communicating research to diverse audiences?

Get to the point quickly.

You risk losing your audience’s interest by leading with too much background and supporting points before delivering the bottom line. Present key points and findings and explain their significance (the “so what?” of the research) early on.

Don’t expect numbers to speak to your audience; create a narrative from the data that focuses on people.

Some audiences will more readily appreciate the relevance and significance of your research if you frame findings within a story about the people behind the numbers. You may even consider skipping numbers when possible. “About half” is more intuitively understood than “49 percent.”

Resist the urge to overload your audience with information.

Leave out technical terms and acronyms and include only core information necessary for understanding. You can always expand on points or give additional details later in answering questions or upon request.

Use conversational wording or wording at an 8th grade reading level.

Your audience may include people with varying levels of education and familiarity with the topic and people whose first language differs from yours. Minimize issues with comprehension by paying attention to wording. How would you explain your work to a stranger on the train? A smart teenager? Your grandmother?

Don’t worry about “dumbing down” the research.

A clear and simple explanation is always more appropriate than a convoluted one and reflects your deep level of understanding of the topic. Analogies and metaphors can help here with translating complex topics.

Help your target audience find you.

For example, when communicating via electronic media like websites, personal blogs and social media, use keywords and hashtags to help the communication reach your target audience. 

Identify your goals of the communication.

What are your goals and intended outcomes of the communication? Do you aim to develop core skills? Gain confidence in your work or recognition in the field? Network? Disseminate new knowledge? Increase awareness or support of an issue? Reduce the disconnect between scientists and the general public? Identifying your goals can help you select an appropriate outlet and communication tool.

Think back to what excited you about this work.

Beyond disseminating information, your objective should be to get your audience excited about the work you’re doing. Think back to why this question or problem captured your attention and inspired you and infuse that into your communication.

Make interactions with the public a positive learning experience for you and your audience.

Create positive interactions between you and the target audience by encouraging questions and responding to them in a positive and respectful manner. When possible, gather feedback from the target audience and use it to guide future communications.

How can graduate students develop skills in effective science communication?

University-run training programs in science communication

These programs generally consist of workshops, seminars and exercises focused on improving written and verbal communication skills and translating research to a general audience. See Table 2 in Kuehne et al. (2015) for a list of programs.

Teaching or guest lecturing

Some graduate programs require or encourage graduate students to become teaching assistants or instructors during their training. In addition to improving oral communication skills, this can provide opportunities for practicing translating complex information to a diverse audience.

Practice communicating research to familiar non-expert friends and family

This is a way to practice science communication skills in a low-pressure context. Your friends and family are likely interested in knowing more about what it is you do. Practice talking to them about your work. They can provide feedback about whether or not the language and approach you’re using is clear and effective.

What are personal benefits of science communication for graduate students?

Sustained perspective of the bigger picture

Most graduate students in the field of adult development and aging want to improve the lives of older adults and their families. However, we rarely see that our individual work has an impact because a lot of the research we do is collaborative, complex and slow-moving. It’s possible to begin to feel dissatisfied or less motivated as a result. Science communication forces us to refresh our perspective, look at our work from a new standpoint, remember why it is exciting and important and convince others of its relevance. In doing so, it becomes clearer how our collective contributions move the field forward and make an impact.

Multidisciplinary collaborations and career development

Translating complex information to non-experts involves thinking about the same topic in new ways and engaging with other professionals. This can provide a context for networking as well as idea synthesis, which could lead to future collaborations. It’s also a chance to increase societal support or gain recognition for your research, which is vitally important for researchers who depend on public money to obtain research funding and advance their careers.

What are societal benefits of science communication?

Opportunities to voice expectations and concerns about research

Science communication increases interaction between scientists and the general public. This creates opportunities for the public to talk to researchers about their expectations such as information dissemination about upcoming areas of research and new discoveries, or concerns such as potential risks to participants and others using new knowledge for harm.

Increased access to information and changes to policy or practice

Without science communication, research findings would remain in labs or within academic circles unable to make a broader impact. Effective information dissemination can improve science literacy in the general public simply through education. It can also help government officials make informed decisions about changes to policy, practice or program funding.

References

Allen, S. (2013). 11 tips for communicating science to the public. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/blog/qualia/11-tips-communicating-science-public

Brownell, S. E., Price, J. V., & Steinman, L. (2013). Science communication to the general public: Why we need to teach undergraduate and graduate students this skills as part of their formal scientific training. Journal of Undergraduate Neuroscience Education, 12(1), E6-E10.

Carr, M. (2008). Mind the gap: Communicating science to diverse audiences. Science Editor, 31(5), 158.

Carter, I., & Paulus, K. (Research Communication Strategy Group, 2010). Research communication: Insights from practice. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/media/
57a08afc40f0b649740008bc/2010-11_Insights-into-RC-final-formatted.pdf

Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology. (n.d.) Communicating to engage. Retrieved from https://www.aaas.org/comm-toolkit

Fischhoff, B. (2013). The sciences of science communication. PNAS, 110(Supplement 3), 14033-14039.

Kuehne, L. M., Twardochleb, L. A., Fritschie, K. J., Mims, M. C., Lawrence, D. J., Gibson, P. P.,... Olden, J. D. (2015). Practical science communication strategies for graduate students. Conservation Biology, 28(5), 1225-1235. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12305

Tripathy, J. P., Bhatnagar, A., Shewade, H. D., .Kumar, A. M. V., Zachariah, R., & Harries, A. D. (2017). Ten tips to improve the visibility and dissemination of research for policy makers and practitioners. Public Health Action, 7(1), 10-14.