Make it a Conversation: Best practices in #scicomm 3/n

Question_mark_alternateIf there is one thing that most people learn from their 18 + years of schooling is that they do not like to be lectured. Whether it is from your parents, your teachers, your friends, your coach or whoever, a long, drawn-out lecture usually doesn’t work. Compared to many fields, I think we have a good grasp on this, maybe since most scientists went to school for over 20 years. (Yeah, don’t think about that too much. It will make your head hurt). 

The point of this blog isn’t to tell you how to spice up your precious PPTs, but instead how to make your science communication a conversation. I think the best way to encourage conversation is to ask questions! Let your audience give their opinions and contribute to promoting your message. The most important thing is that you must avoid yes or no questions. We’ve all had that awkward moment where you ask someone a question and they simply respond “Nope”. The best way to avoid that situation is to use open-ended questions.

Below, I outline some various types of questions and how you can use them to encourage conversation. These could be beneficial during a classroom visit, public talk, or a conversation on the street. Your audience can change!

Questions to get the conversation rolling

1. Surveying: As I mentioned in my first blog post, it is important to get to know your audience. You can use surveying questions to begin this process.

  • Where are you from?
  • When were you last here? (Particularly appropriate if speaking with people at a museum, zoo, aquarium etc.)
  • What are you most excited about seeing/learning/hearing today? (This question is a great way to survey the interest of your audience. Depending on what they say, you can change your conversation.

2. Comparison: Once you start getting into the heart of the matter, start to let your audience contribute ideas with questions that ask for their opinion or views.

  • How do bird differ from bats? In what ways are they similar?
  • How do trees in your backyard look different from those found in the tropics? Why do you think that is the case?

Comparison questions get people to think. For scientists who also teach, you’ll recognize these as excellent exam questions because they encourage creativity! There is rarely one right answer and it is always amazing to hear what people will come up with when given the chance.

3. Focusing: These questions can serve as good follow-ups to more open-ended comparision questions. With a focusing question, you ask the person to pay close attention to one part. I like to use focusing questions with kids because they often need more guidance before providing answers.

  • Look at the bat’s ears. Now think about how those compare to a bird.
  • Think about the leaves on your backyard trees. Are they bigger or smaller than leaves from the tropics?

4. Problem-solving: I think this is my favorite question type because I love getting people to think like a scientist. Once you set-up a conversation by asking for comparisons and focusing their attention, it is now time to let your audience explore ideas on their own. Similar to the comparision questions above, problem-solving questions rarely have one right answer and they encourage creativity. However, you need to give your audience the tools and information to come up with solutions.

  • If you found a fossilized flying animal, how could you tell if it was a bird or a bat?
  • What do you think would happen if you moved a plant from your backyard to the tropics?

5. Application: These questions will really help drive home your point. This is your opportunity to turn the question “why should I care?” back on to the audience. From your smartly facilitated conversation, you audience should now be able to answer that question. You’ll also be surprised with what people come up with when encouraged to provide their own connections.

  • Why should we be worried about bat specific diseases like white nose syndrome?
  • Why should we control the spread of invasive plant species?

The one thing I hope you take away from this post is that creating conversation and asking questions offers the opportunity for your audience to engage with you in a new and beneficial way. When people are forced to think about these ideas for themselves, the connections between themselves and nature grow stronger. No matter what your specific science communication goal is, I’d say that outcome is a pretty good one.


How else do you encourage conversation in science communication? What is your favorite question to ask? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (@crhoffman99).


Update: Thanks for making this post one of the Top 25 Science Communication stories!


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