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Published

16 October 2012

Researchers get advice on successful communication

Dare to be personal and exploit the power of social media to engage recipients and get them to use information. These were a few of the pointers given by Andy Torr, the science and research communicator, when he addressed researchers and communicators at the invitation of Mistra and SSF.

The basics of communication are to know your intended target group, pick out a maximum of three main messages and use simple language. But that is not enough, explained Andy Torr, an experienced science and research communicator at Canada’s University of British Columbia, when he was invited by Mistra and the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) to lecture on research communication in mid-September.

‘Academic writing follows a pattern in which background and details come before results. That’s the opposite of how the media work. So, to avoid giving others a free hand in deciding how your research is described, you have to find a good story that can carry your message.’

When this goes wrong, his experience is that researchers cannot blame the media. Their weakest link is often with the communicators at the universities that are to publicise the research. Many researchers fear losing their credibility when they come to talk about their work. According to Torr, it is often a balancing act between two forms of rhetoric, logic (logos) and emotion (pathos).

‘Being too involved in what you’re talking about can be perceived as unserious. But not being able to let go of academic language also damages the listeners’ confidence in you, since they then perceive you as emotionally cold.’

Emphasise what drives you to get involved

One way of getting round this is to tell people why you are doing something. Instead, what we often do is just tell them what we do. If you explaining why, you and your research give the impression of being more human and approachable. For example, you can convey how the research can influence society and our quality of life, finances or ethical situation.

Torr gave several examples of both when things have gone badly wrong and of researchers who, on the contrary, have achieved tremendous success. One of the latter is Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old American who has become a global celebrity for getting research funds to develop new diagnostic methods.

‘His interest, which grew in his school biology lessons, started with a friend dying of cancer. He wants to find better methods of detecting the disease earlier — an extremely good reason why that gets you interested in his work.’

Anyone wanting to use the same method can, for example, post a personal presentation on a website and describe the driving force behind their research. Communicating this arouses interest and attracts prospective doctoral students and research funders alike.

Networks making more dialogue with the public possible

Andy Torr also emphasised the fact that social media are creating entirely new opportunities for not only telling others about one’s research but getting people actively engaged in a way that spreads like ripples in water — hence Torr’s phrase ‘the ripple effect’.

‘Today, people don’t just want to receive information. They want to discuss it and interact. Researchers can boost interest in what they do by communicating on blogs and so on. And don’t just think about reaching various target groups, but also about what the recipients can do for you. How should you communicate to ensure that opinion formers, funders, innovators, colleagues and others take in the information and act in such a way as to promote what you want to attain with your work?’

Surveys show, for example, that a growing number of people get most of their news through Facebook, via links recommended by friends. How should a research news item be presented in order to be disseminated in this way? Another trend is for more and more researchers to post short video films about themselves and what they do online. This is an effective way of capturing people’s attention and interest.

Many practical communication tools

Andy Torr’s seminars on 10–11 September attracted more than 125 communicators and researchers. Marlene Ågerstrand from Stockholm University, a PhD student in the MistraPharma research programme, was one of the participants.

‘It was an inspiring day,’ she says, ‘and it provided a clear picture of how important it is to be able to communicate one’s research. I myself have had the experience of what I do being described somewhat inaccurately in newspaper articles, so getting practical tools for thinking along the right lines is helpful. After all, if anyone is to benefit from my research on risk assessment of chemical substances, I have to get my results across to others.’

Torr was glad to encounter such keen interest, and advised those who wanted to know more to follow the online discussion. There are numerous ways of both learning more and making a contribution oneself, such as Twitter. And those who don’t want to participate can just ‘eavesdrop’.

‘Swedish researchers, with their outstanding research, have every opportunity of being more visible by communicating well. Not everyone can be a new Hans Rosling, perhaps, but I hope the seminar has conveyed some basic requirements for succeeding better,’ he concludes.

Andreas Nilsson, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

Tools for good communication according to Andy Torr:

  • The Golden Circle, which helps people to convey to others why they do something and not what they do, as an effective way of generating interest in their research.

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  • The Message Box, a tool for preparing oneself before a lecture or interview, by formulating the benefits of one’s research and why it is interesting, in a structured way. Read more in Escape from the Ivory Tower, a book by Nancy Baron.
  • The Gunning Fog Index, an online service that measures readability, i.e. the complexity and accessibility of a text in English, such as the abstract of an article.

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  • The Debunking Handbook, a guide to correcting errors without running the risk of reinforcing myths and misunderstandings instead.

  • More about research communication: on Twitter, search with the following tags: #scicomm, #scicom or #scicoms. Three good blogs are: blogs.scientificamerican.com, scienceblogging.org and scienceblogs.com.

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