May 17

Scientist: stop making these 3 mistakes

Science has the power to transform the world. So how do you create societal impact with your scientific findings? I'll help you become better at communicating your scientific findings and stop making 3 very common mistakes - it's free and you can start implementing this in your practice today!

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I used to be a scientist. I worked on two Dutch climate change research programs on the interface between science and society. It was my team's job to make sure knowledge flew freely between scientists, policy makers and other stakeholders. During the six years I worked at University and the +10 years I've been running a design agency and working with many scientists; I've seen many people getting stuck in science communication. 

This is me, in our Lakmoes Office :), hi! I'm Marjolein, one of the owners of LakmoesLab.

If you make it until the end of this blog post, you'll have some concrete, try-it-yourself tips to start improving your science communication practice today! :)

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First of all: there is no surprise and zero shame that so many scientists make these and other communication mistakes. Scientific research and science communication used to be two separate activities, carried out by two distinct groups of professionals. Nowadays scientists are expected to communicate about their research and not just to their scientific peers, but also to research stakeholders and a broader audience.

The thing is: scientists aren't trained in communicating about their scientific findings - except for maybe a single presentation course or media training. So it's no wonder a lot of mistakes are made.
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I'll discuss 3 very common mistakes ànd provide you with a simple solution: 3 simple questions to get you started with better science communication, today.

If you don't like reading, watch the recording of my 15-minute webinar on this topic.
During the webinar I shared an offer for scientists serious about improving their science communication. We extended that offer for a limited time. Join our community right now (it's free! No strings attached) and a button will appear below. If you are already a member, click on the button below.
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For those who like reading (I feel you!), let's get started!

Mistake #1: Sharing data and facts, not stories

We get it, we love data too. When you're passionate about your topic, all the details interest you. However: sharing your scientific findings is about more than bombarding people with data and facts. You need a great story.

It is a common misconception that a deficit of information is what causes the great problems in society. But people are rarely persuaded to change behavior or act based solely on data.

So you need stories, or more precise: storytelling techniques to make your data relevant to your audience, give meaning, eliciting emotions and provide context.
Also: every story has a main character: in this case, your main character is not you (stop information dumping!), but your audience (start connecting!).
If you make your audience the main character you force yourself to step into their shoes What do they need? Why should they care?
I deliberately use the word 'audience' here, because storytelling is important for any kind of audience:
  • Scientific peers
  • Stakeholders, i.e. companies, organizations, policy makers or government
  • Broader public
Each has different needs and none of these want to listen to a dull lecture. Sure, the information density and complexity of a presentation to your scientific peers are higher than in a social media post for a broad audience, but it always makes sense to ask yourself one important question:

Why should my audience care about what you do?
The answer might be different depending on our audience. Scientific peers want something else from policy makers or funding agencies. Your peers might want to know if they can use your findings in their own research, see the implications, or explore opportunities for cooperation. The broader audience might want to know why its relevant to society, how it will improve their live or that of their (grand)children.

Find an opening based on your audience's needs and start your talk or report with that.

Mistake #2: Not knowing what's in it for you.

When sharing your research with a broader audience feels like you're only giving and it's not helping your research or career, you're not doing it right. 

We know about the burden of publication pressure, it is real. The single most important indicator of an excellent researcher is still (for better or worse) your h-index: how many articles you published in A-rated scientific journals.

This means that if you spend a lot of time on worth-wile and societal important knowledge dissemination, you may have less time writing articles, which could seriously harm your scientific career.

So just sharing your knowledge without getting anything in return is not selfless, it self-sabotage.

This may sound harsh, and I am not advocating that you keep score and refrain from science communication altogether. However, I do urge you to see science communication not just as something extra that you do for the greater good, but as something that is actually helpful and even necessary for your career.

Ask yourself the question: what's in it for me?

How can I benefit from connecting with certain groups? Are there organizations that are included in my research, that benefit from what I'm doing and how can they help me? Research co-creation becomes more and more common as societal organizations, policy makers or sectors work together with scientists on a range of topics.
Connecting to those you communicate with increases your network, opens up opportunities, improve your research, give you access to new alliances and even aids your scientific research process.

Mistake #3: Thinking it's not your job

Scientists are expected to take on communications tasks. But it's not always easy. Maybe you don't feel comfortable or confident sharing your science with the world. Maybe you think it's not your job. You might be right. But you also might be wrong.

It's not easy to do science communication. You probably didn't receive much training in (science) communication and feel uncomfortable taking the stage. If you speak from a place of insecurity, your message becomes muddied and it is unconvincing.

Also: scientists are often pressed for definite answers by journalists and policy makers, asking to say something with certainty. But scientists love the nuance and certainty in science has a very different meaning from the general use in society.
You may be concerned for your reputation. Many believe scientists lose their objectivity if they advocate for a cause or are humiliated for saying something wrong - this happens.
All in all: these are big challenges and most scientists don't receive a firm education to deal with these things and to communicate and frame their scientific findings for a general audience.
If you are faced with these things, ask yourself this question:

If not me, then who?

If I don't take up the responsibility of communicating about this topic, who will? Maybe you have an awesome science communication professional at your organization who puts your research out regularly. That's great!

However, even the best communications professionals don't know the nitty gritty of your research and what you are working on right now. Is there really someone that is better in communicating about your research topic as you?

If there is no such person, and you still feel uncomfortable taking the stage, consider education yourself, taking courses in your graduate school or from external parties.
We believe the world needs better quality storytellers. People who can create meaningful, information-based narratives to help create solutions for this world's problems: the covid-pandemic, war, disease, inequality. These storytellers come from all kinds of backgrounds: artists, journalists, politicians, schoolteachers and also scientists.

Don't just give away the power to share your science, stay involved, because you are the only one with the in-depth knowledge of your specific topic and your own unique insight in that. It's too valuable not to share it with the world.

Download cheat sheet summary

We know you are pressed for time, so here's the quick and dirty cheat sheet summarizing all of the above.
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How we can help you

At LakmoesLab we've developed courses for scientists, combining our own experiences as scientists with the skills we acquired working 'on the other side' as knowledge communicators and designers.

All our science courses are bundled in a Summer School for Scientists, starting June 22 2021.
UPDATE 7-06-21 Enrollment for the 2021 Summer School is closed and you can no longer register for any of the courses.
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During the webinar on this topic I shared an offer for scientists serious about improving their science communication. We extended that offer for a limited time. Join our community right now (it's free! No strings attached) and a button will appear below. If you are already a member, click on the button below.

Learn to tell stories with data.

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