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I'm an assistant professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver, where I use tiny zebrafish (the size of an eyelash!) as a model system to study human hearing loss and how we can prevent it. I'm also a long-time Toastmaster and I teach communication workshops. This blog represents the merging of my two passions - science and communication, which has really become one central passion - the science of communication. There's a revolution in science right now...the idea that we scientists should sometimes leave the lab and talk about what we do, and why we do it, to real people. This blog looks at why we should do this, and how to actually talk about science with non-scientists (and with each other!). Portions of this blog are also featured on Qualia, the AAAS MemberCenter blog site.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Sailing the C’s of Science Communication

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A good public talk about science should both inform and entertain (in my opinion, any scientific talk should do both!). At FameLab, with three minutes and no PowerPoint crutch, contestants seek the right balance of information and fun.  The judging criteria really hit this balance using the three C’s of science communication: Content, Clarity, and Charisma. These C’s form the backbone for any good talk, and we’ve looked at components of all of them before.  Here, I want to remind readers that they all fit together. 

Content This one’s obvious, right?  We each have a scientific message to share – the excitement of our latest findings on cell division, whale song, or planetary geology. For many of us, I think the challenge is to restrain ourselves from cramming too much content into our talks.  Whether we have 3 minutes or an hour, each talk should have one core message, and the content should all support that message.  For my first FameLab talk (video coming soon), I focused on plainfin midshipman fish and how their whole reproductive system revolves around song.  These fish sing a mean tune!

Clarity  Even Nobel Prize-winning findings don’t mean much if no one can understand them.  To get our message across, we need to be clear.  This doesn’t mean “dumbing it down” for a lay audience – I find that phrase insulting.  This means structuring our talk in such a way that new content follows old, and that we use language and comparisons appropriate for our audience. In my research on midshipman fish, I can either say that these fish show seasonal auditory plasticity, or I can say that the female’s hearing changes during the breeding season. Both points are correct, but which is easier to understand?

Charisma  For most of us, this last C is the hardest – we became scientists because we’re good in the lab, not because we’re the life of the party. Charisma doesn’t have to mean handshakes and kissing babies…we’re not running for office! Communicating our passion for science, and doing it with a smile and some appropriate humor, goes a long way to making our science accessible.  In my midshipman talk, I opened by singing “You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’” a la Tom Cruise, then explaining that some fish also sing to attract the ladies.  I don’t even sing in the shower (might damage the plumbing!), but it captured my audience’s attention with a bit of fun.

Prepare your next talk with the 3 C’s in mind and you’ll smoothly sail the C’s of science communication.

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