Communicating Science and Scicomm career advice from Sci Comm Camp

What does it mean to be a Science Communicator? What tips can you pick up from others? Ian Street has been finding out at this year's Sci Comm Camp.
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Outside of Los Angeles in mid-October, Sci Comm Camp was held for the third year in a row. Camp gathers science communicators at all stages of their career to learn about the sci comm industry and talk about what works and doesn’t when communicating science.

What follows is a list of some of the key take-aways from the weekend. I wrote about some of this on my own blog, The Quiet Branches.

The "false pepper" trees (Schinus molle, Anacardiaceae) that were everywhere at Sci Comm Camp
The “false pepper” trees (Schinus molle, Anacardiaceae) that were everywhere at Sci Comm Camp. Photo by Ian Street

Effectively Communicating Science

Have an angle. In other words, why should someone care? Don’t bury the lede.

Start strong. Vividly bring the salient points of a story to the front. Make it memorable. Make it stick. Write strong sentences that tell stories of characters with compelling arcs. This is true even if your project audio, video, or visual data display– it all starts with good writing of what a communication will entail. Cut out as much background info as possible, let an audience jump into the thick of the story and give background further down as needed. This is especially the case when writing for audiences not steeped in science – have a hook and bring them along into the world of wonder and curiosity you’re relating.

Learn compelling narrative structure. Tell good stories simply and well. Endeavor not to complexify things by enhancing your verbiage and circumlocute field-specific jargon (unless writing specifically for an expert audience, but even experts appreciate clarity). Make your messages simple, unexpected, concrete, reliable, emotional, and stories. The more of these your bit of sci comm is, the better.

Edit & take feedback. See what others think before putting it out into the world for what works, what doesn’t. There’s also a way to gain this by consuming content you find compelling and looking at what has worked for others. And if serving as your own editor, let your work sit for a bit before returning to it with fresher eyes. Accept critiques that say “I didn’t understand”. If that is consistent feedback, go back to the drawing board and figure something else out. It comes up in all communication, but skillful and active listening will serve you well.

Have an audience in mind. “Everyone” is not an audience, even if it is who you hope to reach. Who do you envision talking to when you are communicating science? What is something that they like? How might you appeal to them? Where do they consume media? No matter who your audience in mind is, working to be respectful and inclusive, inviting more people in, letting curiosity get planted in their minds is a good practice.

Lean into what makes you unique. What communities can you reach that no one else can? Lean into those parts of you – your experiences – that may be uncomfortable or are self-conscious about. Those are what audiences and potential employers in the communications world will respond to (more on that below). Be unique while cultivating yourself as a person being worth working with.

Journalism & science communication are not precisely the same. Journalists want to reflect the reality of their stories as much as possible. They want anyone interviewed to be portrayed in as accurate a light as possible. That includes the good and the bad etc. Science communication is a bigger umbrella that includes things like advocacy and showing how awesome science is/can be. It includes science policy and diplomacy. These branches are related but have their unique aspects. They’re like one plant species showing phenotypic plasticity.

Create fertile ground for critical thinking to take root. If you’re addressing a specific misinformation source, remember that they are not likely your audience, but those watching quietly are. Be respectful of those that lack scientific expertise (they know things you don’t too), and remember that as a scientist, you have a lot more knowledge about your field than someone who hasn’t studied it. Build trust. Make science memorable. Admit what you don’t know. Basically, don’t be a jerk.

Paint interesting pictures of the characters and people involved. When it comes to plants, this may be harder, however, creating a character out of a plant or physiological function and telling a story with protagonist, antagonists, a Chekhov’s gun (i.e. introducing something early on that will go off by the end of the story) or creating a hero’s/heroine’s journey are all ways to tell compelling stories. There is a reason Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Hunger Games are popular.  

Learn favorite mediums audiences use to consume information. Also ask what medium can best make your point or bring your story to life? A blog, youtube, Tumblr, Twitter, television, and podcasts all have different characteristics, strengths, and audiences. How you tailor your message on each platform can matter.

Seedlng growing at the base of a Eucalyptus tree at Sci Comm camp.
Seedlng growing at the base of a Eucalyptus tree at Sci Comm camp. For effectively communicating science, create fertile ground for curiosity, wonder, and critical thinking to grow. Photo by Ian Street

Making a career in Sci Comm (Freelance edition)

Many of the Sci Comm Camp attendees are full-time science communicators. Many of them freelancers, essentially solo-preneurs. There was a session dedicated to helping support freelancers as well as an “ask-me-anything” panel with those that work in Scicomm (or have communicating science as a part of their job).

Two of Three P’s: Prestige, passion, and pay. If a job doesn’t offer at least two of the three, then pass on that opportunity (there may be an exception early, early on in a scicomm career).

The money should flow to you. Being a professional communicator, especially in the world of television or major media, you shouldn’t pay to get your content out, you should get paid. Again, there may be some exceptions at times, however, broadly, if you are looking to make a career in communicating science, money should flow to you.

Pitch. Keep pitching (your correspondent needs to get back into this habit). The Open Notebook has a pitch database and is a generally fantastic resource for all things science writing/storytelling. Go there.

Failure will happen. Things fall through for all sorts of reasons having nothing to do with you or your efforts (it may have to do with you too, in which case you can potentially do something about it).

Keep going and improving. Try to do better than your last effort. Wrote a blog post? Great! What would make your next one better? Who could help?

Ask, cite, credit, pay. Ask people for help. Pay them if they are offering a service like editing or art (some artists may even have old work they can’t see anyone doing anything with they might let you use with attribution for free, though I can’t claim to know how common that is). I have asked friends for use of pictures they’ve taken & shared on social media that strike me as fantastic and something I could use and use with their permission (& I always cite the photographer).

Delegate. If there are tasks you can hire our or delegate to others that will help you get your communications work done, do that.

It’s a long, winding, process. It is an extraordinary privilege to get to be a full-time science communicator. It isn’t easy. And so do credit yourself with progress and look at how far you’ve come as you grow into a professional. Keep a folder of the “yeah, I’m awesome” emails, notes, etc. you get and look at it when things are hard.

Find your community. You’ll need friends, colleagues, and mentors on your journey. Find one that lets you reach for the sun while staying rooted to the ground.

Eucalyptus tree
Eucalyptus tree at Sci Comm Camp. Photo by Ian Street

There was even more to Sci Comm Camp than included here. It was a wonderful experience. If you’re able to take a weekend in Southern California, November 2-4 in 2018, I highly recommend the experience.


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