2023 Annual Meeting Report: Finding Creative Ways to Communicate Science

By Lauren Walker posted 05-11-2023 12:40


The pandemic years revealed the detrimental consequences of weakened public science literacy on mainstream science and public health initiatives. From uninformed opinion pieces to deliberately misleading messaging campaigns, we’re currently in a communication crisis that challenges our ability to build healthy and safe communities. Fortunately, the 2023 SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo Continuing Education (CE) course “Put Your Science Where Your Mouth Is: Practice Makes Progress in Effective Science Communication” was well-positioned to equip attendees with the skills needed to prepare their messages, build a personal science communicator brand, and give effective peer feedback.

Equal parts science communication bootcamp and practice session, the course focused on what’s at risk (i.e., future science literacy, wasted resources from mismanagement, economic/democratic instability) to demonstrate the importance of contextualizing your message. The first presenter, Emily Copeland, emphasized the importance of knowing your audience and tailoring your message to highlight what’s interesting or the key factor that affects something people care about deeply. She also reminded participants to be mindful of reporters’ goals when talking to the press—the facts and a good story. Distilling your message into two or three key points with “flag words” such as “we found x” and “this is important because” highlights your key points in a way that the media understands. Saying your key message in different ways and multiple times also helps to make your points stick. Copeland also recommended taking the time to prepare for tough questions surrounding certainty and personal recommendations. To protect professional credibility, it’s best to confirm certainty where you are able (e.g, “We’ve seen enough evidence in our research to be concerned.”) and leave recommendations to medical and policy experts.

Outside of working with reporters, the course also focused on how scientists can build their personal communication brand as a science sharer, science writer, or scientific speaker. During his presentation, Bill Sullivan shared the three key elements that comprise building a brand: (1) area of expertise, (2) communication tone (serious vs fun) and medium (blogs, books, formal speaking events, community events, etc.), and (3) target audience (children, adults, educators, policymakers, etc.). Dr. Sullivan also acknowledged the very common fear of being challenged by skeptical audiences and recommended “motivational interviewing” as an approach to engage them in productive conversations. Asking about their concerns with genuine curiosity and critical thinking makes it easier to identify shared values such as healthy kids and a strong economy. In this way, effective science communicators can reframe issues to encourage skeptics to open their minds to possibility.

During the course breakout session, attendees practiced distilling their science into clear and concise three-minute talks. In small groups of about five people, we shared our science and practiced the “ask-tell-ask sandwich” method of constructive criticism that Anne Chappelle introduced during her talk earlier in the session. In contrast to the classic “praise sandwich,” the “ask-tell-ask sandwich” method focuses on coaching instead of criticism. After each speaker finished presenting, we asked them where they felt their presentation went well and where it had struggled. The rest of the group then gave actionable feedback on what they had observed, guided by the speaker’s own evaluation of the presentation. Finally, the speaker would synthesize the collective feedback with the goal of how to improve the presentation.

During the post-breakout debrief, participants expressed appreciation for the hands-on nature of the course. There is a critical need to continually practice science communication at various career stages and in diverse sectors, but opportunities can be harder to find outside of the trainee pipeline. Within my breakout group, two people suggested seeking internal opportunities to work with non-toxicologists/non-scientists or joining your local (or virtual) Toastmasters International chapter to practice science communication at work and in your community.

This blog reports on the Continuing Education course titled “Put Your Science Where Your Mouth Is: Practice Makes Progress in Effective Science Communication” that was held during the 2023 SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. All 2023 Continuing Education courses were recorded and are available for virtual viewing through the SOT CEd-Tox online library. SOT Postdocs and Students and individuals from select countries receive free access to all CE courses.

This blog was prepared by an SOT Reporter and represents the views of the author. SOT Reporters are SOT members who volunteer to write about sessions and events in which they participate during the SOT Annual Meeting and ToxExpo. SOT does not propose or endorse any position by posting this article. If you are interested in participating in the SOT Reporter program in the future, please email SOT Headquarters.