Monday, December 21, 2009

A Final Farewell

Well folks, it seems that three months has gone by since I first started as a science policy fellow. That means my tenure here is up. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’ll miss writing for New Voices, but it’s time for me to move on.

Since one of the major focuses of the New Voices blog is to become effective advocates for science, and really, you can’t be an effective advocate without being an effective communicator, I wanted to focus on the that I’ve learned about science communication. In truth, while I’ve grown quite a lot during my time here, my take home lesson is that there are always more ways to improve, and the most difficult thing is recognizing where the gaps are and working on those.

I have had a career where my focus has always been in academics. Coming to Research!America, I held the view that academic and non-academic communication were very different. However, I’ve come to realize that the overall goal for both of these styles is to educate, and so really, they can’t be that different. The big difference is in the style.

When I was younger, I used to write fiction all of the time. For a time, I even dreamed of being a fiction writer. Once I chose science, I left fiction writing behind, and adopted a writing style expected in academia-one with a very serious, formal tone. The problem is in giving up one style for another. I didn’t consider that even as an academic, there would be times that I wasn’t writing for my colleagues; and truly, times that I shouldn’t be writing for them, but rather for the public as a whole.

Over the past three months, my focus has been to try and recapture the story-telling quality of my abandoned fiction writing days and intermingle it with my science writing. This is the only way to reach an audience that is not one of academics. Not only that, it’s made science much more fun for me. Rather than remain emotionless, I now focus on conveying my excitement while I’m writing.

I’m not saying that the formal style that I often used in academia is not useful. It has its place, but it shouldn’t be the only style in use.

Example: I recently submitted a job application, and the employer requested a writing sample. I sent them three, with a note explaining that each sample had a particular purpose: a technical writing style, a narrative style, and an in-between (for those times when you need to sound formal without using jargon). All of those styles have their place depending on the audience that you’re targeting.

The toughest part for me was figuring out how to develop a more narrative style of writing. So, I thought I’d share a few tips that I’ve come up with to guide myself in that endeavor:
  1. Write as though you’re having a conversation with your best friend, and their training is in some field unrelated to science (I like to think of my friend Carrie, who is a theatre major).
  2. Think of stories or analogies that can demonstrate the point and turn the concept that you’re explaining into more of a reality for your intended audience.
  3. Avoid jargon at all costs.
  4. Use pictures to illustrate your ideas.
  5. Be concise, but not technical - there’s a difference and sometimes it’s hard to determine.
Giving presentations is the other part of this communications equation. I hadn’t realized until academia how technical my presentations had become. And let’s face it, technical means boring.
As a fellow, I had to reexamine my presentation style, and really make an effort to expand it for a non-academic audience. I’ve always been a good presenter, but now I realize I wasn’t an engaging presenter. There’s an important difference. So, here are my presentation tips:
  1. Don’t hide behind the slides. Limit your use of a laser pointer so that you’re only emphasizing distinct points. The more you look at the audience, the more they connect with you.
  2. Bring personal interest stories into your presentation. Don’t just tell your audience the punch-line. Tell them why they should care about it too. How does it relate to them?
  3. Keep slides simple and use pictures rather than words to highlight the main point.
  4. The only way the audience will be excited about your topic is if you are, so use your voice and your body language to convey your excitement. Don’t try to hide it.
So that’s it for me, my final words of wisdom. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them.

Au revoir.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice, and I hope you'll keep us posted if (hopefully WHEN!) you start blogging somewhere else. Your voice is too good to not blog!