Communicating Science: Make It Relevant

How do you communicate science to a general audience? That was the subject of a recent presentation I gave to the Federal Communicators Network. Based upon my experience as a science communicator for NOAA and The Nature Conservancy, I suggest that writers:

  • Use common terms
  • Avoid acronyms
  • Get out of your organizational bubble
  • Make it relevant to the reader
  • Stress benefits, not features

In the talk, I used case studies from my current job as a Communications Manager for The National Weather Service (NWS).  For example, NWS has a great new technology under development  – Wireless Emergency Alerts.  When talking about this new service, do you communicate the features (cell towers, polygons, alerting authorities) or the benefit (getting a text alert before a tornado hits your house)?

You stress the benefit, obviously. The benefit establishes relevancy in the mind of the reader. Grab the reader’s attention by leading with benefits and then you can explain the complicated details.

Is Greenland Melting?

Is Greenland melting? Has the ice cap suddenly disappeared from this frosty island?

That’s the conclusion I drew after skimming DCist this morning, which had the headline:

Nearly All of Greenland Melted in Span of Four Days, NASA Finds

And then below was this alarming graphic:

And here’s the lede:

This is kind of scary. According to a NASA analysis of recent satellite readings, it took just four days for nearly all of Greenland’s surface ice to melt amid an oppressive heat wave a couple weeks ago.

Reading this, I thought, “The ice cap has disappeared from Greenland.” All of Greenland’s surface ice has melted away over four days.

But the reporter got it wrong. If you read the comments from the smart readers of DCist, you discovered the truth. The chart above only indicates what’s melting on Greenland. Everything right now is melting on Greenland but it’s still covered in plenty of ice and snow. It’s like an ice cube that’s sweating but is still plenty big.

How could this information be communicated better? Should reporters receive more training in interpreting scientific information? Is this graphic from NASA confusing and easy to misinterpret? Should public affairs officers “dumb things down” even more?