Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Delivering the Hard Truth in a Science Talk

Karen Lips writes:
It’s profoundly frustrating to have a platform and a voice, but not to have a clear call to action for the public. A common theme in science communication is that we have to the audience care. And people do care – a lot! They are eager to help, to offer suggestions, to get involved. But at the end of my talks there is no magic bullet. The truths I have to offer are not easy, they don’t instantly make us feel better. If there is tough love, let’s call what I have to offer “hard hope”.
Part of the research process is to define problems, show how you solve them, and present the knowledge you've created in that cycle of work.  That's the happy ending scenario.  Usually a few minutes are tacked on to discuss the next steps: your current work and unsolved problems.  It's part of a delivery format that most scientists are taught to follow first, and I think what Lips' example speaks to.  Scientists aren't taught to give happy endings, but it's important to learn how to do exactly that.

If the problems you face are still huge and potentially unsolvable (like the extinction of species, as Lips writes about), the audience departs on a sad note. 

Most of the time selling science isn't like selling a book or a product: there's no action that makes the audience feel better.  Selling your science is about educating your audience about something new, novel, or useful to them, which helps them in whatever they do, regardless of whether they're researchers or a more general audience.

The hard part is convincing them that you've given something valuable in return for their time.  Only then do they buy into what you're speaking about.