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For Peat’s Sake: How to Effectively Communicate Science

For Peats Sake LogoBy Marla J. Stelk, Policy Analyst, ASWM

I just got back from a trip to Washington D.C. where I participated in a two-day “Communications Boot Camp” hosted by the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS). The topic of how to effectively communicate science is certainly not a new topic; the contentious debate surrounding climate change (among other topics) over the past 20 years has resulted in many new communication communicationscampstrategies and interesting research into human behavior and psychology. This workshop, however, was specifically targeted at scientists and the room had a diverse group of them represented at the table – folks involved in everything from mitochondrial research to NASA space exploration.

The first day was focused primarily on working with the media and day two was focused mostly on influencing policy makers. Everyone was required to actively participate in role-playing exercises, and although some of us tended to cringe when we were asked to engage in them, they always resulted in stronger group dynamics and a very effective learning process. Nothing can quite replace practicing your performance among peers. The small group size of thirty participants made it manageable and created an environment where a small group of strangers quickly became colleagues and friends.

One of the biggest bits of advice that was consistently reinforced during the boot camp was the need to know your audience. This is not new advice but critical to constantly remind folks. In many ways, it parallels what we at the Association of State Wetland Managers (ASWM) have learned from our two+ year project looking at why wetland restorations fail – the need to really know your site. Context is everything. Are you trying to communicate effectivecommunicationwith people involved in the media…policy-makers…business owners…lawyers…parents…school children…the list can obviously go on and on. Knowing your audience is critical to developing your communication strategy and materials. Who are they and what are their interests? What is their background, their educational level, their values? Why should they care? Focus more on “why” than “how.” Do your homework upfront, tailor your message and you’ll be far more successful.

The second biggest bit of advice, that was actually my biggest take-away, was that research has shown that people can only retain three messages at a time. The presenters provided all of us with a “communications triangle” (see image below). Start with your primary message – your big idea – but keep it to 140 characters or less. This can be very challenging — and as someone who has resisted the whole Twitter form of communication I have to admit it was a hard pill to swallow. But it is the reality of the world we live in – anything longer and you risk losing people’s attention precipitously. After you develop your main message, identify three key talking points to support it and transition phrasing to tie them all together and to your primary message. If you can focus on the big picture and the broader implications of your work, you’ll be far more successful in communicating why it is important and why people should care.


And finally, don’t be afraid to be excited about your work. Your excitement and passion will be contagious. Just because it may be highly technical and complex doesn’t mean that people won’t be interested in it. Express your excitement and joy of discovery and you’ll get other people excited about your work as well. There was a lot more great information and advice that was shared, but you’ll have to sign-up for their next boot camp to really absorb it all. For those of you who will be attending the Society of Wetland Scientists (SWS) Annual Conference in Puerto Rico in June, ASWM will be facilitating a day-long symposium on communicating science as well. It’s an important topic that demands our attention — so For Peat’s Sake, I hope you’ll take the next step to improve your communications skills.

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