Episode 2 – How to NOT be boring

This week Jen and Michael chat about the important topic of ‘How to NOT be boring’ when communicating about science.

We’re sure you can all remember sitting through an incredibly boring science talk or struggling to read a boring piece of science writing. If you want to get your message across, it’s essential you capture your audience’s attention and convince them what you’re writing or speaking about is of relevance to them.

Listen for our thoughts and advice on how to be more engaging when communicating about science plus tips from two of our UniMelb SciComm students, Randy Mann and George Mechaalani.

Finally, here’s a good read on why we need to make science writing less boring and HOW we can do that: ‘Bored reading science? Let’s change how scientists write.’


Jen (00:00:00)
Welcome to let’s talk SciComm, a podcast by the University of Melbourne Science communication teaching team.
I’m Dr Jen Martin and my co-host is Dr Michael Wheeler and we believe science isn’t finished until it’s communicated.

Jen (00:00:37)
Hello! And welcome to Let’s Talk SciComm, a podcast from the science communication teaching team at the University of Melbourne, here in Australia. I’m Jen and I’m very happy to be joined as always by my wonderful co-host, Michael.
Hey Michael, how are you?

Michael (00:00:58)
I’m very good Jen, very good, but the pressure is on today.
We’re doing a podcast all about how not to be boring, so we better…

Jen (00:01:07)
Yeah, I love how we, I love how we tried to come up with much fancier names for what this podcast would be about, and we’ve just ended up with such a straightforward title, “How not to be boring”.
So yeah, what are we going to do if we end up being boring, Michael? Terrible!

Michael (00:01:20)
Yeah, we’ll have to start again.
Or else just come up with some jokes. We’ll just go straight into the jokes.

Jen (00:01:28)
Well, you know you’re in charge of the dad jokes, Michael, that’s, absolutely your domain.

Michael (00:01:33)
Professor of Dad jokes.

Jen (00:01:35)
That’s right, all the way.
So tell me what, what are we thinking about when we say how not to be boring?
What does that, what does that mean in the world of science communication?

Michael (00:01:43)
Yeah, I mean it’s, I think it’s such an important consideration when doing science communication. If we can all, you know, put ourselves in the shoes of a time where we were incredibly bored from a piece of communication, I think a lot of people can relate to that.
You know, imagine just being at a conference, you’ve got, you’re listening to half an hour talk and you know five minutes in, you’re already thinking about that experiment that you need to do, or in my case, it’s usually what’s for lunch.

Jen (00:02:17)
Yes, I can relate.

Michael (00:02:21)
So I think as communicators, we want to be aware of what we need to do to ensure that we’re not boring our audiences, essentially.
And I think to put that in context, I think it’s especially important today because, you know, we exist in an environment where there’s a lot of distractions. Due to technology, there’s something called the attention economy, which is essentially where a lot of technological applications are vying for our attention; we got push notifications and things like that, so you know, I think we’re easily distracted and there’s a good quote that actually kind of summarizes that.
So, you know, it’s a quote in the context of education, but I think it’s you know, it’s relevant to what we’re talking about today. So Marc Prensky said, “digital natives accustomed to the twitch speed multitasking, random access, graphics, first, active, connected, fun fantasy, quick payoff world of their video games. MTV and Internet are bored by most of today’s education.”

Jen (00:04:24)
And that was 20 years ago.

Michael (00:04:27)
Yeah, I know, I know.
So it’s, it’s vitally important to try and be NOT boring and engage our audience if we want to get our message across. And I suppose, you know, one experiment that we could do to prove how important this is, Jen, and I might ask you and also the listeners who are listening at home, if you can remember the content of a piece of boring communication.

Jen (00:05:00)
Isn’t kind of the answer to that, that by definition I can’t remember it? Because it was too boring and I just tuned out and thought about other things?

Michael (00:05:08)
Exactly! That is the right answer that I’m looking for.

Jen (00:05:11)
Excellent, I get a gold star for that one.
But I mean, I think you know, it is the stereotypical image of a scientist, though, isn’t it? You think about any kind of negative stereotype about a scientist as a communicator. Because let’s face it, so many scientists are brilliant communicators. I know so many scientists who do an absolutely amazing job of communicating about their work.
But that’s not the stereotype. The stereotype is the person in the white coat droning on, using lots of jargon, completely boring. And of course, you know, we can all think about a conference we’ve been to where there was someone, maybe they didn’t wear the white coat, but they were incredibly boring and you didn’t actually understand what they were talking about, and of course you remember nothing.

Michael (00:05:48)
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely, yeah. And look, it’s, I think it’s a, you know, an important question that we can ponder and maybe debate is that what makes communication boring, you know.
Is it related to the style in which it’s communicated or is it related to the planning and structure of that communication? And I would argue that often the, the planning and structure of your communication is often overlooked.

Jen (00:06:21)
Yeah, I think it’s, I think it’s both.
I mean I guess for me, a lot of it comes down to… As the person who has the the privileged position of being the communicator, so whether we’re thinking about you getting up and giving a talk, or whether you’re, you know, you’re writing something, you’re in this very privileged position that you’re demanding an audience’s attention, or at least you’re hoping to get that audience’s attention.
And so, yes, absolutely some of it comes down to the planning and the structure, but it just also comes down to why you’re doing it. What’s the purpose? What are you hoping to achieve and is the content that you’re sharing actually relevant to this audience?
Because I do wonder if, no matter how engaging a speaker you are, for example, if what you want to talk about is of absolutely no interest or relevance to your audience, maybe you’re going to be boring anyway, what do you think?

Michael (00:07:05)
Yeah, there you definitely need to ask yourself those questions, don’t you.
What am I trying to achieve? Who am I communicating to?
And this is the biggest take home message from you know, everything we teach, which is to tailor your communication to suit your audience. So if you only take away one thing from this, that’s the, that’s the main message.
Yeah, and I mean you need to consider those if you’re going to get your message across and you need to be clear on what that message is.

Jen (00:07:36)
And I think you know, one of the maxims that we always hear, you know, anyone who’s done any form of science communication training. You know, there’s nothing new in saying know your audience. We’ve all heard that. It makes inherent sense to us that you need to find a way to communicate, that’s going to resonate with your audience.
But I think for me, I take that a step further and it’s not just about knowing your audience, it’s about respecting your audience because I think, certainly so much of the communication that I did in the early days, I was just focused on me, you know.
I mean, yes, I’d thought about the audience in some vague, subconscious way. Perhaps that, yes, I knew my audience were scientists in my field, so it was going to be OK for me to use some technical language. Or I knew my audience were primary school kids, so I thought about, well, how can I make sure that I make it fun for them.
But really now, these days I think so much more about how do you respect an audience, an audience who is attention poor and time poor. If I’m going to expect them to focus on me, then I’m going to have to deliver something to them ideally that, that they need or that at least feels of relevance to them. And I think that can be really hard to do.
But I think, I think this idea of purpose, I think this idea of what’s your why, why are you doing this communication. It’s very easy to gloss over and kind of think, well ’cause I have to. You know, I’ve got to give this, this conference talk or I have to submit this piece of writing. But a technique that I use quite a lot, which is really useful is the ‘five whys’.
So Michael, I want you to think about a piece of communication you’re working on at the moment. I know you had to give a talk, you’ve got a conference talk coming up. So if I say to you, Michael, why are you giving this conference talk?

Michael (00:09:10)
Want to get the message out? About the important topic of my talk.

Jen (00:09:17)
And why do you want to get the message out about the important topic?

Michael (00:09:21)
I suppose I’m speaking about the association between eating disorders and the increase in fracture risk, so.

Jen (00:09:31)
Why do you want more people to understand about the risk of fracture and the link with eating disorders?

Michael (00:09:37)
Uhm, because, I suppose it, it can potentially lead to, you know, interventions that might have a beneficial effect on fracture risk and the opportunity to educate, and you know, learn what’s, what’s behind the you know increases in fracture risk.

Jen (00:09:57)
And why do you want to educate people about the risk of fracture?

Michael (00:10:02)
So we can potentially reduce people’s risk of getting a fracture?

Jen (00:10:08)
So you get my idea right? And to all our listeners, I totally just put Michael on the spot there. He had no idea that I was going to do that. But can you see how it’s useful to just keep asking yourself why? ‘Cause eventually you usually get down to something that’s really important to you and something that really kind of speaks to your values.
And for most scientists, eventually the why is: because I want to make a difference, because I want to help people make evidence-based decisions, because I want to help people be more informed about things that affect them.
And if you go through all the whys, you get from the fairly superficial why of just: I want to give a good conference talk, or I want to get funding, or I want to potentially find a thesis, sorry, a PhD supervisor, or I want to find a new collaborator or I want to be more visible, you know.
There’s all these fairly superficial whys which are all valid, and good ‘whys’. But eventually if you go through all the layers, most of us just want to do good in the world, and I think being clear on all the levels of purpose can be so helpful for not being boring. Because then you start to tap into real passion and real kind of you know, authentic, I don’t want to use the word passion again. But you know what I mean, you’re really authentic about wanting to do this piece of communication and audiences can, can tell that from a mile off, I think.

Michael (00:11:19)
Yeah, absolutely, you know. And it’s, it’s, I suppose you, you get down to the important context behind you know, what you’re trying to communicate and the, you know.
If you’re able to give the audience a sense of where you’re coming from, what your motivations are, in terms of, you know, what’s the bigger picture here? Taking a step back from the details of your science.

Jen (00:11:46)
Yeah, and I think that’s really useful because, I mean in some situations your communication, it’s going to be predetermined who your audience is, right? You know I’m going to a conference to give a talk, or I’ve been invited on a particular radio show to talk about my work. So sometimes the audience is sort of set.
But other times we need to, to, you know, find our audiences. So once we’re clear on our purpose, then, we can say: ok, well, if that, if this is what I’m trying to achieve, who is the audience that I need to communicate with? And I need to find a way of connecting with that audience.
And so how you’re not boring is to, you know, it’s highly likely that you’re going to have identified an audience who’s really interested and has some, you know, has some skin in the game, has some investment in what you’re talking about, or they, they probably wouldn’t be your target audience. And then I think it becomes much easier to not be boring because you’re talking about something that is, that is relevant to people.
And so the next step, then, is once you’re clear on what you’re trying to achieve and who the best audience is to help you achieve that. The next step is kind of the, the challenging bit, but also the fun bit, and you mentioned this earlier with structure. It’s how do we actually tailor a message that is going to work for that audience. Because I think so many of us have spent so much of our time as scientists thinking about the message that we want to share. This is my story, I’m going to tell you about my research. But I think often we have to realise that the way we share our work is not so much the way we want to tell it. It’s the way that our audience is gonna take it on board, and they, they can be quite different.

Michael (00:13:15)
Yeah exactly. Yeah, you really need to be able to put yourself in the shoes of the audience. And I suppose, it’s as you, to just to pick up on something you said there. You want to make the content of what you’re talking about relevant to the audience, and I think the more relevant you can make it to their lives, the more engaging it will be for them, you know. So perhaps sprinkling your communication with some examples that they’ll be familiar with, making it personally relevant to them as well can be really useful.

Jen (00:13:52)
Yeah, absolutely, and I think you know, that leads to one of the things that you and I teach, and our whole team teaches a lot about and that, that’s this idea of a hook, you know.
The analogy is that if you’re out there with a fishing line with nothing on the end of it, the fish aren’t going to come and check out your line, they’re just going to swim straight past. But the minute you put a hook on the end of your line and put some exciting bait on the end of that hook, ideally the fish are all going to swarm around you, and that’s what we’re always trying to do with our audiences.
So we, we talk a lot about hooks, don’t we? What’s the very first thing that you were going to say? Or the very first thing you’re going to write, or the very first image you’re going to show? Which ideally, will immediately captivate your audience’s attention? It will take them away from anything else going on in their heads, the temptation of the phone in their pocket, the notifications, the daydreaming, whatever it is, and immediately grab them to think, Ah, this is interesting. This is going to be worth my time and attention. And a good hook, a good hook can be hard I reckon.

Michael (00:14:47)
It can be hard. I mean, it’s not necessarily the natural thing to do, to put a hook in at this, let’s say at the start of a, you know, a presentation that you might be giving, because I suppose you do need to be a little bit creative in designing a hook.
You know, I think a lot of people will be familiar with that classic start to the presentation, where person stands up and says “Hi, my name is blah blah blah. I’m here today to talk to you about blah blah blah.” That’s a missed opportunity, I guess, for not saying that and replacing it with something that’s going to be immediately engaging.

Jen (00:15:27)
Ah, absolutely Michael. And the thing that drives me wild is particularly at conferences where the chairperson of the session has just said “Hi, you know, welcome to the session. Today we’re joined by Jen Martin from the University of Melbourne and she’s going to talk about effective science communication”. And then in the worst case scenario I have a slide behind me that says Jen Martin, University of Melbourne and the title of my talk and then I go right ahead and get up and say for the very first sentence, “Hi, I’m Jen Martin from the University of Melbourne and today I’d like to talk to you about effective science communication.”
And it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that, but we see, we see scientists do it all the time.So what’s happened there? Well, the same information has been given three times. And by then, you know, you’ve automatically lost the attention of your audience. Whereas if I get up and immediately start with something fascinating and interesting, and I see, you know, I see speakers who work in medical fields do it all the time.
This really immediately engaging, you know, the hook being something like: “OK, I want you to look on either side of you. Of the three of you, one of you is going to be dead by disease X by the age Y or whatever it is.” There is a, oh my goodness, who is it gonna be? Is it gonna be me? Is it gonna be you? And everyone wants to know, well, hang on, what is this disease and how can I make sure it’s not me who dies from it? So it just works a treat.

Michael (00:16:40)
Absolutely, we had a lecturer in undergrad who did that with heart disease, and yeah, it’s, it’s quite powerful. Yeah, and I mean it, I think depending on what your topic is and you know, who your audience is, you’ll have a, a kind of a range of opportunities to do creative hooks.
I remember being at the three minute thesis competition before and watching some of the other presentations and one person was presenting about rocket science or something. But they started their presentation outside of the room where everyone was gathered to watch the presentations. And they started by, you know, dramatically opening the door and running onto the stage, as a rocket. So you know, they had their hands above their head in a triangle, ran onto the stage, making the noise… You know, everyone looks up, what is this talk going to be about?

Jen (00:17:43)
Oh, that’s such a good hook. I love it, it’s brilliant.
I thought the hook was going to be something like, you know, it’s way more complicated than rocket science, or something?

Michael (00:17:52)
Yeah, yeah, I mean look, it’s the, I suppose it takes a bit of bravery to do that and you don’t always have, kind of you know, the opportunities to do it, to do a hook like that.
But I tell you what, I still remember it, you know, and I talk about it and it’s the, it’s the example I always give to students so…

Jen (00:18:09)
Yeah, oh look, absolutely.
I did a really fun activity in a workshop a couple of weeks ago that I just, I just Googled best science Ted Talks and you know, love them or hate them, we all, you know, some people hate Ted Talks but we have to all admit that Ted Talks are, you know, designed to be an engaging way of speaking.
And so I just found five or six Ted Talks about science that’ve had lots and lots of views and we just watched the first sort of 20 seconds of each one and then analyzed what has this person done for a hook, and how effective is it? And we came up with some really good ideas, you know.
Analogies, little personal anecdotes can be really powerful if you understand what someone really cares about it. Yeah, I think rhetorical questions can work well. Putting up a really striking image can work well. You know some people manage to pull off jokes and puns. I reckon you could do that, you’re a much better joke teller than I am, Michael. I think I’d be too scared to tell a joke ’cause it would just fall flat. But yeah, there’s, we’ve all seen good hooks, haven’t we?

Michael (00:19:04)
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I mean, even at scientific conferences.
I’ve been to scientific conferences where the speakers, you know, include a little joke if they’re comfortable. But also, you know, making a startling assertion, you know, at the start of your talk. I mean, if your research relates to anything related to a disease, for example, you really want to give the audience a sense of the burden of that disease. And there’s certainly a lot of opportunity there to kind of make a startling assertion.
So yeah, it’s, there’s a lot of different ways you can do it, and you know you can be creative with, with the hooks that you come up with. And you know, I think the best kind of advice is to practice, you know, try out a couple of these different techniques and see what other people think.

Jen (00:19:58)
Yeah, absolutely, and I think you’ve made another really good point there, Michael. Thinking about, you know, you said, “make sure everyone understands the burden of a particular disease”, and I guess we should point out, you know, we teach scientists across all disciplines, so not particularly medical scientists we work with. Yes, the epidemiologists and the biochemists, but also the geologists, and the particle physicists and the mathematicians that we work across all fields, and we’ve seen all sorts of hooks.
But, I think the thing to always remember is that you, as a scientist, you are so deeply invested in your work and you know it inside out and your hook has to be something that invites other people in to realize why this work is important. Why is this worth doing?
So you know, your actual hook might be fairly detailed, but then you’ve immediately got to give people context so they understand. If you’re talking about a particular, you know, very small aspect of of your field of work. Tell people why they should care, because I think this whole idea of how to not be boring, you’re going to be boring if people get to the end of your talk, or your piece of writing and kind of go well, so what… I well, I don’t see, I don’t see why that matters to anybody. Yeah.
So we have to get better at explaining to people the value of what we’re doing, and I think we’re never really taught to do that. You know, we’re never really taught to say, Well, actually, I really believe in the value of what I’m doing. I think this work is really important and I’m going to explain to you why and you know you’d never say it quite like that. It feels very uncomfortable, but we have to give context. What’s the problem here? If you want your audience to care, you need to establish for them what’s this problem that you’re trying to solve and why does it matter?

Michael (00:21:25)
Yeah, yeah, absolutely yeah. So, you know, a good rule of thumb is to, you start off with the wider context, then come down to some details about the topic that you’re discussing, but then to return to the wider context again at the end, and as a way, as you say, to have a kind of a strong ending.
And I think you know in that opening context, it can be good to, you know, use a hook. But also if your topic and I, I suppose, in a way science exists to solve problems. So I think no matter what your discipline is, there is often going to be an opportunity to discuss, you know, your area of science in terms of the problems that it might be trying to solve, you know, whether that’s something practical or whether it’s addressing a gap in knowledge.
And if you can identify problems or gaps in knowledge in your opening context, you can repeat them towards the end when you return to the wider context, and I think that repetition is really powerful because what you’re doing is you’re familiarizing the audience with some of these problems in the opening, they’re already familiar with it. So when you return to it again at the end, in a way that explicitly links the details of your topic to those problems, then it can be really powerful.
And an analogy I like to always give is you know, if there’s anyone out there who likes stand up comedy. If you ever notice when a comedian is doing a set often they’ll tell a joke at the beginning. But then they’ll tell the same joke later on, later in the set, and it’s extra hilarious the second time. And there’s probably some powerful psychology going on there that I don’t know about but you know, I think what they’re doing is they’re familiarising the audience with something. So now the comedian has a shared connection with the audience, and then when they return to that same joke, it’s extra hilarious. But I think as scientists we can tap into the same psychology and when we return to our problems at the end they will have you know, extra value and relevance in the mind of the audience.

Jen (00:23:55)
Yeah, I totally agree and I think you know, this is something we’ll, we’ll do a whole separate episode of. We don’t really have time to talk about narrative structure now. But what you’re talking about there is definitely this idea of narrative.
And we all know how satisfying it is when someone kind of comes full circle with their narrative. They establish the problem at the start, they talk through a whole lot of information that we need to know in order to understand the problem better, and then they return at the end. And often that looks like returning to your hook, you know, that means coming back to that hook that you use at the start. And as you say, it just has so much more weight when you, when you return to it. So yeah, I think that’s super important and we’ll, we’ll do another episode. Well, we will probably do lots of episodes on narrative.
But just before we run out of time Michael, it occurs to me that just one fairly straightforward point that we should make when it comes to how not to be boring is just to say, of course, you’ve got to think about the language that you use and you know, jargon has such a bad name. People are always, you know, saying “you can’t use jargon, you can’t use jargon.” I disagree. I think jargon is only jargon when you’re using the wrong language for the wrong audience. You know, technical language can be absolutely fine if you’re talking to an audience who knows that technical language. It’s just that you don’t want to alienate people by using language that they’re not familiar with. So it comes back to know who your audience is, respect your audience and then use language that’s going to be inclusive for that audience.
Because as soon as we use words that people don’t understand, of course you’re boring. I mean, gosh, I’ve listened to a lot of talks in my time where I wasn’t clearly meant to be part of the audience or the speaker hadn’t thought about who the audience was, and I just got lost and bored and went off into my own little world because I couldn’t understand what they were talking about.

Michael (00:25:28)
Yep, yeah, absolutely, you know. And it’s the you know, thinking about is this technical term necessary?
I mean, does it carry any special meaning that would be lost if I were to replace it? And if not, then replace it.
But if it does have some special meaning, then it’s, it’s probably fine to include. But maybe you want to consider, do I need to tag on a little extra explanation, you know, depending on the audience.

Jen (00:26:00)
Yeah, and I think if you are giving a talk and there could be people in the audience for whom your language is not their first language, it can be really helpful to provide any technical terms you’re going to use as a written thing on the slide.
Because as much as we’ll do another episode at some point talking about slides, and you know less is always more when it comes to slides. But if you’re using a word that might not be completely familiar to someone as a spoken word, then having it as a written word in front of them can really help as well. But we’ll come back to that Michael.
Right now, we need to move on to a very special segment that we’re excited about, that we’re going to include in lots of our podcast episodes. What’s that? Michael, you tell us.

Michael (00:26:35)
It is, drumroll please… the student tips!

Randy (00:26:46)
Hello everyone, my name is Randy Mann and I’m currently a Masters of Geography student at the University of Melbourne. However, I’m a little bit longer in the tooth when compared to most uni students. Prior to arriving in Australia over three years ago, I had a 40-year career in television weather broadcasting in the United States, so essentially providing those on air weather forecasts was a form of science communication.
I picked up many tips over the years, but I would have to say that one of the most memorable ones that I learned to apply in my broadcast was to include the word YOU. I discovered that using that particular word often allows your audience to become more involved into what you’re trying to say.
The heads of the news operations that I worked for would constantly tell me to be more conversational and engaging. So my advice is try to talk to your listeners instead of speaking directly at your audio. Let’s take them on the journey with you and try not to make your broadcast too scientific, as your listeners may not be able to follow as to what you’re trying to say now.
All of this may sound easy, but it will take a little bit of practice, but once you become more comfortable by engaging your audience by using the word ‘you’ or other techniques, I think you’ll find they will become more responsive to your topic, and that’s my tip. Thanks for listening.

George (00:28:17)
Hi there, my name is George. I’m currently a student at the University of Melbourne. The tip that I will provide in maintaining and grabbing the attention of the audience is to continuously practice this skill. This will enable you to adjust your term sentence structure and the information you present specifically to the audience that you are targeting. Personally, this has helped me as I have been recently practicing writing in the blog format, so hopefully it will help you as well.

Michael (00:29:05)
Thanks for listening. You can reach out to us on Insta and Twitter @letstalkscicomm and Let’s Talk SciComm Podcast on Facebook and we would love to hear from you.