Book Review: The Science of Communicating Science: The Ultimate Guide
Drawing on peer-reviewed research and 30 years as a science communicator, Dr. Craig Cormick offers an engaging and abundantly practical ‘how-to’ for scientists seeking expert guidance on successfully communicating with the public.
In his book The Science of Communicating Science: The Ultimate Guide, the author shares his straightforward formula for sound communication: be clear on your objectives, understand your audience and know what makes a good story. He invites scientists to embrace these challenges by making use of the many evidence-based approaches and tools that he’s packed into a slim 256 pages.
Far from a dry read, Cormick practices what he preaches by applying the principles of good storytelling throughout. Using a compelling narrative style, he shares real-world stories about science communication research, successes and failures – as well as conveying his own passion for cultivating a scientifically engaged society. As a method to spark interest, build connection and convince the reader, it works.
The author calls on scientists to better understand the potential of skilful storytelling in creating trust and connection with audiences, and why too often they’re missing the mark:
…storytelling is the way we learn about life as children. It is the way we learn about what is right and what is wrong. It is the way we learn our family histories and the way we learn to relate experiences about life to each other. So why then, when it comes to telling the stories of science, are we so uniformly bad at it?… Is it because we feel that reverting to a story-based structure will somehow diminish the importance of what we have to say? Is it because we become too preoccupied with telling the stories that we want to tell, not the stories that people necessarily want to hear?
The guide stresses that you don’t have to be a natural-born raconteur – these skills and strategies can be learned. But don’t wing it. Become familiar with the latest research. For example, studies show that audiences care more about seeing the scientist as empathetic than knowledgeable.
…don’t start by telling everyone what you know. Start by telling them what you feel – about how glad you are to be talking to them, or how much you love their town/profession/passion/your own interest in coming to talk to them, etc. Be a person first and a scientist second… people want to know that you care before they care what you know!
Another central theme of the book is the value of audience analysis, and Cormick provides step-by-step instruction here. Avoid the easy route of only focusing efforts on familiar and easy-to-reach audiences. He advises to broaden audience diversity for maximum communication impact, and study what they care about: “the message you develop for school children is not going to be the same message you develop for farmers… so why would you develop one message for those who are liberal or conservative…?”
Cormick debunks conventional beliefs about what builds an audience’s trust, saying audiences “hold all the power in determining your trust. Traditional trust theory tends to state that trust is built upon factors such as: dependability, integrity, competence. But in the modern world, and in more recent research, relationships are seen as more important.”
The author also tackles unflinchingly the implications of ‘fake news’ on society and science. He writes that in our “post-truth, post-trust, post-expert world,” scientists have little choice but to consider how diminished trust in institutions, misinformation, increased polarization in society, political expedience and the role of new media are impacting their work.
Readers will find many useful tips for dealing with unreceptive audiences (move closer to make the hostility harder to maintain but don’t pass the microphone!), challenging your own biases (distrust intuition – test your messages), and how to draw attention (frame messages for each audience), among others.
As a past president of the Australian Science Communicators and long-time science communicator who has worked with contentious technologies (think biotechnology and nanotechnology), Cormick is well placed to offer scientists workable strategies grounded in evidence and thoughtful analysis.
Scientists eager to start, or to find new ways to communicate their work with lay audiences will find The Science of Communicating Science: The Ultimate Guide an excellent resource to help hone their communication strategies.
Robert Simpson is the President and CEO of PR Associates.