How to Communicate Science with a Story

Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science
The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science works to enhance understanding of science by helping train the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media, and others outside their own discipline.
Monday, October 21, 2013 

On Thursday, October 17th 2013, Lydia Franco-Hodges and Christie Nicholson of Stony Brook University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science came to the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism’s (DTM) campus and gave a workshop to the DTM Postdoctoral fellows on how to passionately and effectively communicate their scientific research and engage an audience.

The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science works to enhance the understanding of science by training the next generation of scientists and health professionals to communicate more effectively with the public, public officials, the media and others outside their own discipline. But why is communicating science important?

Science is knowledge of any kind. Scientists study this knowledge to discover new ideas that take them into the tangled, detailed, depths of the unknown. They communicate their findings through their research, facts and proof during interviews, lectures, publications and speaking events. However, how do you take a complex, difficult, scientific abstract full of scientific jargon and communicate it to an audience of non-scientists? Politicians? Parents? Students? Kids? You create a story.

By creating a story through your research, full of analogies, passion, props, and everyday language, you will inherently keep your audience engrossed throughout the presentation. Emmy award winner Alan Alda, known for his television role playing surgeon Hawkeye Pierce in the acclaimed television series M*A*S*H, realized the facts were simply not enough when he hosted PBS’ Scientific American Frontiers television show from 1993 to 2005, where he talked with hundreds of scientists around the world. In his experience on the show, he realized scientists communicated much better when they carried on real, personal conversations about their work. By combining his acting expertise and passion for scientific knowledge and communication, Alda pioneered the use of improvisational theater exercises to give scientists the tools they need to share the story of their research more directly with the public.

During the workshop today, Nicholson, Workshop Instructor and contributing editor at Scientific American, led the DTM postdocs in multiple improvisation exercises involving mystical space energy balls, limb-to-limb mirrors, interactive story telling and other techniques. These exercises brought them out of the realm of rational thought and insecurity and into the moment to help them fully commit to the story they were telling to the audience in front of them.

After the exercises, Franco-Hodges, acting teacher at Stony Brook University, led the group through a presentation on how to engage your audience and tell a story. She then broke the group in half and helped each postdoc distill their research message. Here, they learned to speak clearly and vividly about their work and why it matters, in terms non-scientists can understand. Scientists have an obligation to share the meaning and implications of their work with the world to ensure an educated and engaged public is given the ability to make sound public decisions.

Through the use of workshops like this and centers like the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, Scientists are given the opportunity to enhance their career prospects, including funding, collaborations, and competitive jobs, by the ability to communicate directly and vividly across different audiences. DTM is committed to joining this mission, and helping our postdocs present themselves in the best light possible so they are offered the best opportunities available.

This workshop was paid in part by a grant from the Brinson Foundation.

Click here to view photos from the workshop. 

Written by Robin A. Dienel

October 17, 2013