Three basics of science communication you need to know.

A news report flashes on an Indian news channel. It shows a woman in the rural area running away from the reporter. A reporter was only trying to ask and convince her of the COVID-19 vaccination. Sometimes the reporter faces anger from the villagers, who show him/her sticks, and at times they display sheer denial about the pandemic itself. Vaccinating rural India, amid lack of education, absence of effective communication infrastructure, and distrust in modern medicine, has become a challenge. This challenge impacts not only the rural areas but the urban areas too as the rural people often migrate to cities for livelihood. But why are we failing? Or the more important question is when did we set ourselves for such failure? We face such challenges today because we are failing to understand the source of mistrust and misinformation. In lack of communication infrastructure the support teams that can help understand the audiences, with a clear vision of what is to be achieved, remain amiss. We did not base our communications early on, undermining the three basic elements of good communication. Emphasized by the expert science communicators these three elements are :
  • Audience
  • Know what you want to achieve
  • Tell a story

Audience

In Niwada village, 60 km from Delhi, the rumours of fever and death instil fear of vaccine among the villagers. Even the shambles of local community health centres mock the vaccine efforts as villagers have long been devoid of healthcare and its related awareness. While, on the other Wha hand, in Janefal village, 366 km from Mumbai, another metropolitan Indian city, the villagers came forth to take vaccines. It happened because the village head took the shot and survived, motivating other villagers, who revere their village head, to come forth. The above example shows that neglecting people, who are the potential audiences of health campaigns like these for long and then expecting to establish trust and dialogue in a day does not help. Therefore, if you want to be a good science communicator you need to respect the audience, understand them, their life circumstances, their social implications, what drives them and what doesn’t. Whether your audiences are public officials, journalists, cross-disciplinary scientists or other lay audiences you need to consider their beliefs, values, attitudes, goals and demographics before you embark on delivering the key messages. You need to keep your likings and preferences in the back seat and let your audience’s interests, preferences or sentiments, drive you.  Always remember, your science is the hero, you are the associate, and the audience is the one you need to help. The audience loves the hero only if they save or helps them, and a hero never excels without help from their faithful associate. 

Know what you want to achieve

If you don’t know what to order from Zomato or Swiggy, how can the restaurants help you? If you don’t know which movie you want to see, can Netflix help you? However smart and advance these platforms may be, they cannot help you till you know what you want. Similarly, while communicating science, even if you know the audience but yourself don’t know what you want to achieve, you will be setting yourself up for failure. Knowing what you want to achieve can help:
  • Evaluate whether you succeeded or failed.
  • Decide and design the suitable activities for communicating
  • Make the content targeted, impactful, and relatable
  • Connect with audiences better and form meaningful relations

Tell a story

Everyone in this world has a story. A story of how they were born, how they faced a bully in school, how they got their first job, and so much more. So why not science? Science is all around us, and it has stories ancient in origins than we can imagine. Thus, telling a story lets you connect with the audiences on a human level, turn your key messages from facts to experiences. When we say tell a story, we do not mean stringing together the fables like an expert writer. You can tell the findings in a research paper by telling the story of the molecule itself, by narrating the sequence of events, making analogies and so much more. There is no standard procedure for storytelling, and that is the beauty of the process.  As we mentioned in one of our previous article even the human brain loves stories: Besides the response to auditory reflexes, the human brains also experience mental simulation upon hearing a narrative. It not only processes the words and sentences but can experience what happens in the story through imagination. Correspondingly, a study involving children showed a higher level of sustained brain activation to storytelling versus reading a picture book. It also highlighted the advantage of storytelling as a psychological and educational medium for children. The inquisitive work by researchers from Princeton presents another curious component of brain activity and storytelling. During successful communication, such as through storytelling the speakers’ and listeners’ brains show temporally joined responses. The neural coupling diminishes when the language seems unintelligible and foreign. Thus, using jargon, and complex words can make your audiences’ brains disconnect from you. Thus, all the discipline of science communication needs you to tell stories.

Are these three elements all one needs?

Practising science communication comes with its own rewards and challenges. These three basic elements are not the means to an end. They are the foundation upon which the science communication activities, campaigns and practices need to be developed.  You need to adopt a flexible approach, learning and fixing things as you go. With practice, you will recognize your style, and get better at the craft.
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