Best practices for #scicomm (series: 1/n).

Woo! I’m going to start my first series on the blog! Over the next weeks I will be releasing posts about several tips for communicating science to the public that fit under four broad best practices that I list below.

I’m excited to share my ideas with you and hear what you have to say. Thanks for reading and look for more new posts in this series soon!

What are your #bestpractices for #scicomm? Leave me a comment below or tweet me (@crhoffman99).


Know your audience. Take time to understand which entity of the public (see here) you are talking to. If you are doing something planned, like a public talk or visit, learn about the group and understand what experiences they may have. This knowledge will help you connect with your audience and leave them with a lasting impressing. When talking to people for the first time, take some time to first get to know their experiences and interests, which leads me to point number two!

Make it a conversation. No one likes to be lectured, we all know that. Communication and learning are two-way streets where you should be facilitating a conversation about a topic. Ask questions, ask for opinions or personal experiences. Genuine interest in the responses and opening up the conversation will make you successful.

Your message can be flexible. You never know where a conversation will lead you! Be flexible with your message. You may begin a conversation about melting sea ice and greenhouse gases, but your audience keeps bringing the conversation back to a local issue. Lean in. Don’t back away from this new theme, but engage and discuss with them. Adjust your message to fit the interests and experiences of your audience. 

Keep it simple. We all know science can be complicated…most things are! But unless people ask about the details, keep it simple. Remove jargon and words that need too much explantation. Use images, pictures, analogies, objects and more to let your audience gain a holistic experience.

Oh, and one last thing….

Respect your audience. I feel like this shouldn’t need to be stated, but it does. When you are talking to someone in the public, respect their opinions and viewpoints. Even though you may disagree with someone who choose not to vaccinate their children, by disrespecting their opinion you are only setting up for disaster. Be respectful: people will listen. Even if you’re audience is not right in front of you (like Twitter) don’t talk down to them! 




Who is the public?


When a scientist decides to enter the world of communicating their science outside of academia, she often starts with some phrase like, “I want the public to understand what I do.” This statement summarizes how most scientists feel, myself included. I’ve come to realize, however, that there is a problem with a statement like that serving as your goal: there is this nebulous term “the public” that has no good definition. Often people assume the public is anyone outside of academia. Others would consider it anyone outside your speciality field. For example, I may be considered part of the public to someone that works on physics. Therefore the public can include schoolchildren, parents, adults, teachers, policymakers, friends, neighbours etc. This list is long. If we want to have effective science communication, the first step is to define your public. 

Chances are that whatever your outreach method is whether it is writing a blog, visiting a classroom, facilitating citizen science, giving a talk, or filming a video, you cannot reach all of “the public” in one fell swoop. Just as you would do for your experiments, set a reasonable and attainable goal so you can measure your success (more on measurement in a future post). Define your audience for that particular outreach project. As an overarching goal, many of us want to reach all those parts of the public, but in reality we’ll need to take small steps, focusing our attention on “the public” with which we connect.

Others argue that by having our goal be “the public” it forces scientists to get out of their comfort zones and learn about a new audience. I certainly agree with forcing yourself to reach a new audience, but this should be a gradual process after starting with a more comfortable audience.

I am also not the first person to question the vagueness of “the public”.  The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education summarizes the term “Public Engagement” noting its tendency as a “buzzword that succeeds because it allows multiple stakeholders to rally together despite sometimes conflicting goals”. Take a look at their post to learn more about different forms of engagement.

What do you think? Should we use the catch-all term “the public” or focus our attention on sectors of that group? Let me know in the comments or tweet me. (@crhoffman99)


6 science people to follow on Twitter.

I will be honest: I totally love Twitter. I started my Twitter (@crhoffman99) over 5 years ago for personal use and over the past two years transitioned to using it professionally and for communication. I follow a lot of science folks, but also some celebs & lifestyle bloggers (diversity is good!). Here are some great science related people and places that I think YOU should follow to get started.


1. Specimen FMNH PR2081 (@SUEtheTrex): Okay, so this is not a person, but a SPECIMEN from the Field Museum in Chicago that tweets pretty hilarious scientific jokes. Always good for a laugh.

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2. California Academy of Science (@calacademy): An outstanding museum in San Francisco tweeting about its exhibits and education efforts. Lots of stunning visuals come through their feed.

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3. Ed Yong (@edyong209): Science journalist who shares a multitude of interesting stories. Ed always seems to be ahead of curve on popular science trends. Follow him to get the latest and greatest of science journalism.

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4. Emily Graslie (@ehmee): With a job title like “Chief Curiosity Correspondent”, you can guess you’ll get some great tweets from Emily. She hosts “The Brain Scoop” on YouTube and is generally making great strides for science communication and women in science.

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5. Alex Wild (@Myrmecos): A prominent wildlife and insect photographer, his feed will bombard you with out of this world, up-close shots of insects. Be prepared for lots of ants and spiders!

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6. Real Scientists (@realscientists): As the name implies, this Twitter account contains real scientists who alternate weekly to bring you various content. Check the info box and picture to identify the weekly scientist. Great account for getting answers to questions!

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What other account do you suggest for getting started? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me!