For public speaking, what constitutes effective communication?
Effective communication with local communities, government, stakeholders and indigenous rights holders is critical for mineral exploration and mining projects to receive approval and support.
During the mining cycle – from earliest stages of exploration, through discovery, to mine closure- scientists, engineers and technical professionals are called on to deliver highly complex information to people with little technical knowledge or science background.
In these situations, your success and challenges lie in communicating technical information – written, verbal and visual – so it is understood. To do this scientists, engineers and technical professionals need to communicate to non-scientists using clear and easy to understand language.
If you speak at your audience’s language level or demonstrate your science in a manner that they can understand, they will make better, more informed decisions, and the result of your communication will be what you were hoping for.
“Because ultimately well-delivered, understandable, information informs good decision making”
Let’s say you’re a parent speaking to your four-year-old child and your message is – “Don’t touch the circular heating element insulated with compressed magnesia and sheathed in a spiral metal tube when it is red, because you will burn yourself”
I think you already know what the likely outcome will be. If your audience doesn’t understand the message, they can’t be expected to do what it is that you are asking them to do. A simple message would have been “Don’t touch the red, hot burner on the stove because you will burn yourself.”
To communicate effectively, it is important to consider your audience’s filters (things that hinder your listener from understanding the message you are trying to deliver) and how, and in what way, your message be delivered so that it will break through your receiver’s filters.
Public Speaking Training – Example 2:
A group of indigenous elders recently attended a community meeting and the president of an exploration company, a chemical engineer by training, was giving an update on a recent exploration season. The CEO stood up and started to explain how 200 gallons of diesel fuel had spilled after a storage tank on the property had been overfilled.
The explanation should have been simple enough – Someone opened a valve to fill the tank with diesel fuel and then forgot to shut it off. The tank overflowed, but most of the diesel was captured and contained in a rubber-lined pool around the bottom of the tank. Only about 15 gallons of the diesel fuel overflowed the collection pool and soaked into the soil near the tank before the overflow was noticed and shut off. The company had since removed the diesel-soaked soil and replaced it with clean top soil. The diesel fuel that spilled had been contained and no damage was done to the environment.
But instead of providing a simple explanation of the incident, she donned her intellectual engineer persona – the identity with whom she feels most secure. She went on to explain in minute detail how someone was transferring the hydrocarbons from one tank to another by opening the ball valve. “The hydrocarbons” she went on “were impeded from flowing into the stream by a three-meter-high berm that had been built around the tanks to prevent the chemicals from being introduced into the greater environment.”
People’s faces in the room had changed from attentive, to alarmed and frightened because they didn’t know what hydrocarbons are and were concerned how dangerous they are and how much damage they are going to cause. They started asking questions and someone at the back of the room shouted “We can’t trust you. We don’t want you on our land anymore. We never gave you permission in the first place.”
The defeated CEO, who stood with her shoulders slumped and beads of sweat on her brow, looked like a deer caught in the headlights. She had no idea what had gone wrong.
At this point, the communication person stepped in and explained that they are talking about a diesel spill and the amount would fill the tank of a half-ton truck. There was a collective exhale of breath and the temperature in the room starting to go down because everyone knew what diesel fuel was and that a 15-gallon spill (the amount that overflowed the catchment) was not going to physically harm them.
Now while this may seem like a simple example, and it is, but it’s important to remember that non-scientists in Canada retain about a grade six level of science comprehension.
Public Speaking Training – Example 3:
A community group was concerned about a proposed tailings dam at a development project undergoing an environmental assessment. Rumors had circulated throughout the community that the dam was storing toxic waste, would be as high as the Hoover Dam and should it breach, would destroy the immediate and surrounding environment.
The company spokesperson understood the need to reassure the concerned group. With that purpose in mind, his team constructed a scaled version of the proposed tailings impoundment area to aid visual demonstration, instead of a technical explanation by his engineering team. When questions arose about the tailings dam, the company representative pulled out his makeshift demonstration. He demonstrated to his audience how the tailings pond was designed to provide stability and prevent seepage, should any water escape over the top of the tailings pond in case of a flood.
Needless to say, this simple demonstration changed the tenor in the room. People’s fears of a Hoover Dam style flood were alleviated, and the project went on to be approved with overwhelming support by the local communities and indigenous groups in the area.
Simple language and visual demonstrations, whenever possible, can prove invaluable to satisfying audience needs, rather than heavy-worded scientific information, which may only add to the fears.
Here are few tips for effective Science Communication:
- Know your audience/target group
- Tailor content and language to the audience’s understanding level
- Begin tailoring by understanding the world from their perspective, align messages with what the audience already knows or believes, remove jargon and gauge their reactions as you progress through your presentation
- Select attractive and visually appealing communication tools such as posters, videos and pictures
- Remember the audience is constantly evaluating you on your visual, your voice and your words
Most importantly – Good communication takes time to create and practice to deliver.
Are you interested to know more about how to successfully communicate complex science to non-scientists? Check out our Public Speaking course