Today I gave a class to PhD candidates on the challenge of communicating science to a broader audience without dumbing down.
First I did a mixer where each member chose a word from their research, something that was challenging them or very much on their mind. I told them that “intelligibility” was on mine, and explained briefly what it meant in my context. So they wrote up a word and explained theirs in their own context to the other participants. That’s a classic, and it was a very nice way in for this interdisciplinary group, who hadn’t met before, but will be working together more closely in the future.
Harry Collins/ Richard Evans: Rethinking Expertise, 2010
Carolyn Johnsen (ed.): Taking Science to the People. A Communication Primer for Scientists and Engineers. U. of Nebraska Press 2010
What didn’t work quite so well was the task that followed: Translating science basics (pdf). The basic idea was fine, but I wanted them to do not only the interview, but also collaborate on writing a text together that could serve as an abstract of their project. Under the expert coaching of Elisabeth Sillmann, a professional graphic designer specializing in scientific publications, they’re making science posters in this 3-day workshop, and need the texts to go on them. It would have been better to leave the interview as an interview, and after sleeping over it, to have them write up the poster texts separately tomorrow. In fact, that’s what might actually happen. In any case, tomorrow we’ll even things out.
I’ve been listening to Al Jazeera all day as the reports come in about the horrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan, 8.9 on the Richter scale, a 7 on the Japanese scale. The Japanese people are being so courageous. Thinking of them.
Anyway, as I listen, it strikes me: There’s been a lot of talk about ELF lately, with much emphasis on lower level speakers. But the reality of ELF as I hear it spoken among academics, or at least the language they aspire to, is in fact far more advanced. The speakers at Al Jazeera are not the benchmark, they’re really off the grid, and many a native speaker could take a lesson from them. But what about the people they interview? Listen:
Dr. José Barrera, living in New Zealand, US/Canadian accent: AUDIO 1 – He might be a bilingual American, or a Latin American who has lived abroad for many years (English/Spanish). He’s a bit difficult to understand, as he uses “uh” and self-correction the way native speakers do. He seems to be distracted by multitasking, handling some windows on his computer in the background during the interview, so the difficulties he’s having making coherent statements aren’t an issue of proficiency. As soon as he starts concentrating his speech becomes more coherent.
Peter Janssen, from Denmark: AUDIO 2 – He’s a very proficient non-native speaker. As he speaks, he mixes up a few consonants (Japan becomes Yapan, the becomes de) and he does typical things to his vowels (all people becomes ole people) and he drops his third person s (“Everybody know that they have to run now”) and his articles and the odd –ing. As for his ss: He may say “It’s so amacing” instead of “amazing”, but that’s a set phrase every listener will recognize. So overall, he’s much easier to understand than Dr. Barrera.
This is an extremely interesting challenge for me, as these scientists are more advanced presenters than the undergraduate students I’ve normally taught, and not as versed in the world of marketing as my business clients. As a group, they give a series of short 2-minute presentations as an invitation to later visit their science posters in the exhibit area. Key issues are how to make their points memorable, and their listeners hungry for more. This opens up a huge area for micro-storytelling (adding the personal dimension), but also for memorable catchphrases that stay safely this side of rhetoric. Work in progress, I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop.
Susanne Frölich-Steffen (her website), a scientist now working as a communcation skills trainer in the academic world (primarily in Munich and Bavaria) gave me wonderful tips. I’m hoping we can work together in the future.
Michael Alley: The craft of scientific presentations. Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid. Springer NY 2003 ISBN-0-387-95555-0
— Book homepage
Nancy Duarte: Slide:ology. The art and science of creating great presentations. O’Reilly 2008 ISBN-13:978-0-596-52234-6
— Nancy Duarte’s blog