Storytelling and science communication (part 1)

A few thoughts and resources for teachers

There are as many ways to tell a science story as there are writers, and as many ways to give a talk or make a poster as there are scientists. Still, there’s a difference between effective communication and efforts that miss the mark. After years of writing about science and trying to teach others to do so, I’ve gained some experience that may be useful to other teachers, or may at least get the ball rolling on a larger discussion.

A note on the context: most of my teaching has taken place in Germany, one of those places that has been notorious for failing to develop a notion of functional communication and teaching it across the curriculum. The results have been predictable; to quote William Zinsser, “Literature professors shouldn’t be left alone in teaching a skill that is inherent to every field.” (His book, On Writing Well, is a must for teachers, editors, and anyone who cares about clear, effective communication.)

In Germany (and too many other places), academics still ride the dead horse of prose which is purposefully obscure, which has to be dissected and reassembled before it can be understood, presumably to show how smart an author is. Usually, though, it simply reveals a sloppiness of thought, a failure to crystallize ideas into a pure and simple form, and no concern for readers who are short on time. It requires way too much effort in decoding texts that often have little to say in the first place. The idea that complex ideas can only be expressed in complex sentences is a myth; just check out the banquet speeches given by Nobel prize-winners. Or Albert Einstein’s maxim, “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but no simpler.”

I often begin my classes with a citation from the book And the Band Played On, an account of the early days of AIDS research written by Randy Shilts. The text comes from a press conference held in June 1982, at a time before the discovery of the virus, as the Centers for Disease Control released its first findings on the epidemiology of the disease. A reporter asked CDC Director James Curran whether AIDS was a sexually transmittable disease. He gave the following answer:

“The existence of a cluster study provides evidence for an hypothesis that people in the study are not randomly associated with each other and the study is a sexual cluster. On the other hand, we don’t have enough scientific evidence to say for certain that one person gives it to another person. We have to focus much more research into this area so that we don’t prematurely release information that’s not validated. On the other hand, we’re not holding back any information that might provide important health benefits. Thank you.”

My students immediately recognize that this statement is scientifically correct; on the other hand, it is so obscure that reporters had to interpret it themselves (or turn to scientist friends for help in doing so). Interestingly, students immediately assume that its opaqueness was politically motivated – which, in fact, it probably was. If scientists feel this way, is it any wonder that the public often reacts the same way toward other scientific pronouncements they can’t understand (“If we don’t get it, they must be hiding something”)?

In the course we talk about the value of shaping and controlling a message – there are easy ways to explain cluster studies that show how strong the “sexual transmission” hypothesis is, vis-à-vis other possible interpretations of the data. Curran could have tailored the information to his audience and given an answer that would have sent a stronger message to the public at a time when people desperately needed information about a dangerous disease.

Rewriting Curran’s statement is a useful exercise, but we usually leave it to discuss what constitutes an effective communicative strategy overall. We usually arrive a single basic principle that, so far, has always gotten the point across. I ask the students to imagine attending a scientific talk, and as they leave, they meet someone outside the door who says, “Oh, I wanted to attend but just missed it – what did the speaker say?” Everyone who leaves the room should be able to give a short, sensible account of the story. Their versions should agree with each other, and they should also agree with what the speaker would say if asked the same question. If that happens, and if nobody passed out or died or spent the whole time answering e-mails because the speaker failed to hold his attention, then the talk must have fulfilled its function.

With this single criterion in hand, I tell students, “So imagine you’re giving the talk – why don’t you just hand-deliver the answer? Just put in a statement like, ‘Now, when you leave and someone asks you what this talk was about, here’s what you should say…'” Call it a take-home message, a conclusion, or whatever you like; this forces the student to reduce the content to a clear, sensible story that should be told in a way that can be remembered and repeated, no matter what type of audience is on hand, and it leaves the speaker in control of the message.

It’s a fine idea, but translating this simple principle into all the steps of preparing and presenting a talk, a poster, or a text usually requires intensive practice. I’ll discuss some of the strategies we use in the next entry.

References:

Zinsser, William. On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2006.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS epidemic. New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 2007

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