Cringe-attacks – learning how to #scicomm
You know those memories that you think of and immediately undergo a whole body cringe? They’re just the worst. One of my most vivid cringe-attacks was back in Year 9.
I really loved school, especially in Year 9. I was very much a self-admitted nerd. It was the day before our first maths test; we were quite anxious. We decided to have a study group and work through questions together. I wanted to be really helpful so I tried to help my friend Mel with a question. She stopped me part-way and said something like ‘No way Lachlan, you can’t help me, you’re such a nerd!’
I should point out, this wasn’t because she thought I was gross or weird, we were pretty much best friends. Basically it meant that she thought I was too good at maths (I really wasn’t) to effectively communicate it with her.
I think this particular cringe-attack has shaped my life. I did continue with science all through Year 12, undergrad, and now into masters. It has been a particularly important this past year, especially having taken two subjects related to communicating science. And with this cringe-attack in mind, and all the great things I’ve learned from these subjects, I think the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is this: Think about your audience
This means you have to be considerate about your audience’s needs. If you think you need to “dumb down” your science, then do it. This can also work the other way too, and you must also be prepared for the chance that your audience is incredibly knowledgeable in your area.
I have two stories that confirmed just how vital this topic was in my head. Both of these are based around an internship I completed over the summer. I was lucky enough to be chosen to take part in an 8 week internship at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria. I was working on a group of mushrooms in the genera Russula and Lactarius. It was an absolutely fantastic experience.
One of the final steps of the internship was to present my findings in a 20-minute seminar. The audience consisted of the staff at the gardens, the general interested public and representatives of the foundation that sponsored the internship. This meant that my audience ranged in knowledge and interest from highly experienced botanists to interested lay-people to my awesome mum who was just there to hear me speak. With this in mind, my supervisor helped me craft a presentation that avoided the complicated science, but rather focussed on the central issue of the project and then expressed the wonder of discovering new fungal species. Due to designing this talk to entertain (and with a lot of rehearsals) I got a lot of positive feedback and I was told it was really successful.
A few weeks later, masters started and I was asked to present the same project to my new lab group. Since the last time was so successful, I didn’t change my presentation approach at all. Bad idea. I didn’t consider the change in audience. My new lab group consisted of no lay-people, only highly educated scientists. I spoke as fluently as I usually do, I got a few laughs, but come question time I was asked lots of questions about the complicated science. Because I had prepared the talk to be entertaining, I had forgotten a lot of the specifics. The end result was a fun talk, but it was entirely unsatisfying to the audience; they didn’t learn anything! The talk had failed its intended purpose! (another one of those cringe-attacks)
I like to think that this is the burden we carry as science communicators. It is our duty to take off our highly-educated-nerd hats for a while, and work to our audience’s needs. This burden is of course made lighter by the incredible joy we get after the sharing the science we are so passionate about.
I’m going to send this to Mel herself, and see what she thinks about my science (we passed the maths test by the way).
Thank you so much for reading my reflection, I hope that you’ve enjoyed reading my posts this past semester. It’s a huge privilege to be able to study science. But to write and speak about it is an utter privilege.
This is the painting I made for the end of my internship presentation. Those are the mushrooms I was studying, and the O is what the spores look like under a microscope.