Changing Style Mid-Breath: Communicating Climate Change Research to Different Audiences

 Aug 6, 2015    by Winslow Hansen

This post originally appeared October 19, 2012 and is part of our throw-back series.

I was asked to give a talk the other day at the Alaska Fire Science Consortium’s Alaska Fire Science Workshop presenting on my research. The audience was comprised of wild fire managers, ranging from people on the frontlines of burning forests in the summer to state and federal agency fire ecologists. Effectively presenting science to a wider range of audiences is becoming increasingly important for researchers who want to ensure their work is relevant and helpful to society. Every time I sit down to write one of these talks, or at least rush to get slides together, I struggle to decide what I want to talk about and how to talk about it. When presenting to scientists, I have an idea of what they will find interesting; it’s what would make me interested. I know the language because it’s my native language. What interests a broader audience though? What are they going to be excited by?  After sitting at my chair for a long time, drinking some serious coffee, and wasting too much time looking through food blogs, I decided to focus on putting the talk in the context of the increasing challenges of managing wildfire in the face of climate change; balancing the natural ecological benefits of wildfire with the protection of life and property. I decided to draw strongly on a narrative style, using clean, upbeat, passionate, and at times sarcastic language. The talk minimized discussion on the details of methods, providing enough snippets to stimulate longer conversation with those interested after, and focused on the results of the study that kept the story moving.  Usually I feel fine before talking to people, but I was nervous for this one. I had been going to the workshop and listening for the previous two years and was a bit intimidated to now be presenting. I didn’t sleep well the night before. I had to take a couple deep breaths before getting up in front of the crowd. In the end, everything went fine.  People liked it. More importantly, I got a lot of good feedback that was super helpful.

Now I’m sure you’re asking at this point: Why is this guy being so dramatic? Throughout undergrad and graduate school, learning how to speak publically is often an important component of curriculum.  Classes go through the perfunctory guidelines of how to give a talk to people and then, of course, you’re required to get up in front of them and talk about things; class projects, your thesis, etc. The problem is, I find it way easier to talk in front of people I drink beer with every Friday night than strangers. Further, I always felt the guidelines that are taught about public speaking are just not that useful. Chief among them; “Craft your message to your audience”. I mean think about this. What does it even mean? No kidding, you want your audience to like your talk. Wow, well done! The advice they don’t give you is HOW to craft your message to your audience, especially when you come to realize that your audience is not one singular unit that thinks and reacts in the same way. Instead, any audience is an amalgamation of people coming from varying backgrounds, with different, sometimes competing, interests and insecurities. So now you need to not only craft your message to your audience, but craft your message to several different audiences (all listening to the same talk). You must explain the content in ways so that everyone can understand while not oversimplifying to the point where you appear incompetent. What a challenge, especially considering the enormous complexity and nuances of many climate-mediated processes. After thinking about this, I’ve come up with four guidelines for talking about science with broad audiences that they don’t teach in graduate school based on my experiences presenting.

1.   An effective talk for a broad audience will take twice as long to prepare as one for an audience of scientists, and four times as long as you think it will. Start early!  Treat your talk like you are writing a paper. Go through draft after draft, revising until the message you want to present is clear. If your message is clear then the only thing you have to worry about is getting the communication style down that will most effectively tailor your message to the particular audience you are talking to. I think this is the tough one.

2. Experiment, experiment, experiment with your communication style. You’re a scientist aren’t you?  Experiment with what works. The worst that can happen is the audience doesn’t get it. Then you revise your approach and try again. I take this seriously; experimenting with everything from how I present and formulate the talk itself, to how much I practice giving a talk before hand, to even how I dress, comb my hair etc.  Okay, this may be a bit over the top, but whatever works right?

3. Listen carefully to presenters that go before you and gauge how the audience reacts.  Yeah I practice and prepare for presentations, but I truly don’t know what I’m going to say until a few minutes before I get up there and start talking. There is no more effective way to heed that stale advice of crafting your messaging to your audience then by watching the poor saps that go before you. What does the audience really seem interested in?  What did they not understand? What made them grumpy? What put them to sleep?  Who is that one overbearing audience member who is not going to give you a free pass? Was there any presentation style or speaker tactic that disarmed the overbearing audience member? Watch closely and adjust your approach accordingly.

4. Finally, force yourself to have fun. The one effective tool you have that transcends your audience is being relaxed, funny, and showing that you really enjoy what you do. No matter who your audience is, people like listening to those who smile, those who get excited about things. And hey, why shouldn’t you smile and have fun? Because in the end, who doesn’t like to hear the sound of their own voice for extended periods of time?

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Loved this line: "the advice they don’t give you is HOW to craft your message to your audience"

Well, at your talk, one key problem area is scientists tend to explain the "what" a lot. They explain the research questions, then dive into what the results were. Missing from that is the hugely important piece - "So HOW DID your research / tool / analysis help answer the question at hand". I think we assume that this is self-evident from the results themselves, but there's that adage about assuming.

So, taking my own medicine then, is there a HOW? for improving the skill I'm talking about? There is! Flow charts. Flow charts are amazing. Recently I had a task to find data layers for scenario modeling. I could just grab layers, list them, then jump into model results. But instead I sat down and tried to map out exactly how and way each data layer was chosen and why it helps the model goal. And that's a slide I'll be putting in any talk about the scenario modeling.

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