Climate and Communication: Takeaways from the Alan Alda Communication Center Workshop

 Mar 6, 2017    by Nigel Golden

Many of us have taken up the noble cause of communicating our science to nonscientists. Casting ourselves as the heroes, it’s important to remember, however, that even the best of intentions sometimes have a way of resulting in unintended consequences. In the original Star Trek, a young Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise rescues a ship full of super-humans in suspended animation with their life-support on the verge of failure. In return for his good deed, Khan Noonien Signh and the other superhumans whose lives he saved turned out to be one of the Enterprise’s most dangerous adversaries. In spite of that, as a Captain in Starfleet Kirk gives Khan a second chance to set his life right.   

When it comes to communicating our science with the public—especially when we work on polarized issues—something similar can happen, in part because we have a history of not taking into account where our audiences are coming from (politically, religiously, etc.). Take climate change: we know that providing more and more facts won’t change minds, yet often that’s what we do.

So, allow me to do what Kirk did for Khan and provide you a second chance.

On January 17th, I attended the award winning Alan Alda Communication Center Workshop. I attended the workshop at the University of Massachusetts Amherst which was funded by an NSF Professional Development Grant and hosted by the Office of Professional Development. I’ve boiled down the two main concepts for you.

  1. Always know your audience: as we seek to know our audience, the focus of the message should always be on the person or group. You should be asking yourself – how much do they know, what do they care about, and how are they responding to your communication?
  2. Always know your goal: once we understand who our audience is, we then should understand our own goals – what do you want the person to learn and what are you trying to achieve in communicating?

Simple right? Sorry, not even remotely. Khan returns again to challenge James Kirk, more determined than ever. Our second adversary as science communicators is the “curse of knowledge,” which happens when you’ve studied something so deeply, you forget what it’s like to not know. Christine O’ Connell, Associate Director of the Alda Center (@CoCoNell2), said: “It’s like you’ve been let in on the secret, your part of this exclusive club of people who know.” The “curse” can make it challenging for us to communicate clearly and concisely. This too we can overcome, however, by learning how to distil our message. How do you do that? Here are seven steps:

  1. Get to the point early.
  2. Lay out the bigger picture: If you work on climate change, what does it mean to live in a climate that is 2.5 °C warmer?
  3. Avoid jargon: Speak simply and clearly – think about a friend or relative with no scientific background.
  4. So what?: Why is your research meaningful for your audience? How does it affect them?
  5. Get emotional: In order to make it stick, make it memorable and personal.
  6. Tell a story: part of making your research memorable is to turn it into a story. It’s easier for people to follow plots.
  7. Be vivid: Different words have different meanings for different people. Create a mental image in your listener’s mind so that they know exactly what it is you’re talking about.

To be honest, the workshop was perhaps one of the most refreshing perspectives I’ve received in regards to communicating science. Using games rooted in improvisational theater exercises, I learned to rethink how I “distilled” my science in a message that helped make it memorable and compelling. The exercises focus on reading body language and non-verbal cues, paying close attention to others, and responding freely. The last activity we participated in was the most meaningful – it was the culmination of lessons we had learned earlier. In small groups, we each practiced effective storytelling using the “elevator pitch” approach. In this exercise, I found that I often disengaged from eye contact with the audience, focusing on what I wanted to say instead of focusing on the person and knowing if they were following along or not. If you would like to participate in this exercise, please see the instructions below!

Perhaps now more than ever, it is important to disseminate our work and engage the public regarding the science we do. Regardless of which stage you are in your career and the platform you use, it is incumbent on scientists to continually seek ways to improve how we disseminate what we know, to “give away” science.

Ask yourself: why do you have an interest in communicating your science? I suspect many of us will come up with the same answer. If you’re like me, it’s to inspire curiosity, support the use of evidence in decision-making, and to increase diversity in STEM. By the way—if you need a refresher on communicating about climate change specifically, there are tons of great (free) resources out there now, like the Connecting on Climate guide or the guides on Climate Outreach. Also, consider reviewing and attending one of the workshops that the Alan Alda center hosts – you can find more information here.

Instructions for Practicing Your Elevator Speech:

Grab someone who respects you (or not, depending on what you have to lose) and doesn’t speak the language of the academy and practice your own elevator speech.

Here is the context: you’re at a party introducing yourself and someone asks you what is it that you do? We’ve all at some point dreaded that question in such informal spaces, anticipating the glazed eyes and unresponsive stares.

Here are the rules: remembering the guidelines of distilling your message, explain your research in 1 minute, then 30 seconds, and then in 15 seconds. After explaining your research in 15 seconds, then explain what about the research is fun or inspirational to you for another 15 seconds. After each time interval, then ask for feedback from the listener and work from there.

How did you do? Did you maintain eye contact? Did you avoid jargon? Did you explain why it’s important?

Congratulations! You’ve just moved one step closer to speaking clearly and conversationally about science. Also, don’t forget to get a thank you card for the listener. 



Nigel Golden is a Ph.D. student and NE CSC Fellow at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. As a wildlife ecologist, Nigel is interested in predicting how climate change will impact the ecology of arctic-adapted species, and developing models to assess changes in their distribution. 

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