Webinar Report: Engaging with wider audiences

What do you need to consider when communicating with different audiences?
Inside eLife
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Moderator: Stuart King, Associate Features Editor, eLife.

Speakers: Anne Osterrieder, Lecturer in Biology and Science Communication, Oxford Brookes University; John Schell, MD/PhD candidate, University of Utah; Fionnuala Ratcliffe, Research Engagement Manager, Cancer Research UK.

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Are you interested in communicating your research to members of the public or scientists outside your field? Our panel offer the following pieces of advice to help you get started

Communicating with wider audiences benefits everyone

Many scientists are motivated to communicate about their research because they want to make a difference in the world or to help promote science. “Getting the message out that science is here to help is key,” says John Schell.

Fionnuala Ratcliffe believes that engaging with the public helps scientists to “see how what they are doing is worthwhile, how it’s part of something bigger”.

Communicating with wider audiences can also help you to become a better scientist because members of the public can be experts in other areas and ask different types of questions says Anne Osterrieder: “By colliding these different areas of expertise you can come up with really new and innovative ideas to take your research in new directions.”

Play to your strengths

There are many different ways to communicate your research to wider audiences. Some activities require a bigger time commitment than others, but many can fit around your experiments or other daily tasks. “I do most of my tweeting on my smartphone while waiting for the bus”, says Anne Osterrieder.

Do you love writing, producing podcasts, or would you prefer to interact face-to-face? Knowing your strengths and interests is really important when choosing activities to try. In her work at Cancer Research UK Fionnuala Ratcliffe is mostly involved in face-to-face engagement, including lab tours and science festivals. “It really personalizes you and makes you, as a scientist, human,” she says.

As a postdoc, Osterrieder started out by creating music videos about cell biology for teachers and students. Since then she has been involved in many other activities including school projects and stand up comedy, and is currently the editor of the Annals of Botany Blog.

If you are looking for opportunities, public engagement or communications teams at your institute or funding body may be able to help.

Find a way to connect with your audience

To communicate effectively you need to engage with your audience and get them excited about your research. When writing a seminar for iBiology, John Schell found that telling the story of a girl who died from an unknown disease and how it relates to his work in yeast really helped him to connect with other people.

Even if you work on something more “obscure”, there are still many ways you can engage with your audience, including asking them questions and acting out analogies. Highlighting the unknowns in your research field can help your audience to understand why you are excited about it. When Anne Osterrieder was talking to a group of school students about the Golgi apparatus in plant cells, she says the students “realized how much wasn’t known and that made them ask their own questions”.

Look at the big picture

When communicating with a broad audience, the central concepts and bigger picture are more important than the technical details of your research. If you are giving a presentation, it can be tempting to start from your academic slides and try to simplify them for a wider audience. However, Fionnuala Ratcliffe recommends that you “start with a blank page and write out the story: you need to take a big step back and pull out the main points about why you are doing it, what benefits it will bring to people, and what questions you are asking.”

Even if you are talking to other scientists, resist the temptation to include lots of technical details. At a workshop on science communication, John Schell realised just how much other scientists can miss in scientific presentations. “If we simplify,” he says, “we can get people more excited by it.”

Get practicing

Once you have decided how you want to communicate your research, the next step is to give it a go. “The important thing is that you get proactive,” says Anne Osterrieder. “If you want to be a science writer or a science communicator, just start doing it”. John Schell recommends that you take advantage of the many tools available. “See what works for other people,” he says, “and develop your own style.”