Teaching Grad Students the Art of Communicating Science: Scott St. George

Sitting through overly detailed, boring conference presentations inspired Scott St.George to do his part to teach students vital science communications skills.  “Frustration was a big motivator,” said St. George, associate professor of geography at the University of Minnesota. “I was fortunate to have had mentors who excelled as communicators, so I knew there was a better way.”  In 2012 Scott launched a seven-week graduate seminar titled The Art of Scientific Presentations where students learn how to talk about their science with clarity and make it understandable to classmates outside their department –– skills that will also fuel their professional success.

I talked to Scott to learn more about his recommendations for standing out as a science communicator.  He says it’s easier than you’d think. “You don’t have to be a crazy science extrovert with a big personality to stand out and communicate your science well.  You just have to make your ideas clear, be empathetic and provide the context for people who are listening to you to help them understand.”

Defy Convention to Make an Impact

Scott dismisses the conventional approach to structuring a science talk in favor of making a greater impact.  “Start with your takeaway message.  That’s when you have everyone’s attention. Don’t make them wait till the end when they are tired of listening to you.”  We agree. We often see scientists give a long build-up, dragging listeners through how they reached their conclusion.  Waiting till the end for the big reveal is a missed opportunity. It’s hard to captivate a listener for that long, especially if you haven’t provided enough context about the problem you are solving to engage them from the start.

I asked Scott which skills are most essential for students to learn to be effective science communicators.  His answer might surprise you: empathy.

“To communicate your science effectively to a non-expert-decision maker or broad audience, you have to have empathy for your listeners. Recognize they are not the same as you.  You always have to reframe what you are saying to meet them where they are.”  He underscores that it is incumbent on you to help your listener understand.

Following good design principles, keeping slides uncluttered and making one point per slide are three of the topics Scott covers in his course. You can get Scott’s advice about several fundamentals that make a big difference by watching his presentation entitled Five Things You Can Do Right Now to Make Your Presentations a Little Bit Better.

Why Empathy Matters

Tailoring your message with your listeners needs in mind is all about being empathetic. Scott has seen what happens when scientists aren’t.  He recalled his experience working in government in Canada. “The scientists had one message whether they were talking to co-workers, the public or decision makers. They never reframed it. Every year they got asked the same question during budget discussions.  Why should we fund this?”  Therein lies the reason that learning to communicate science effectively matters.

Alan Alda, actor and advocate for better science communication through his work at the  Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University, echoes this imperative. “Science is not getting funded in the same way it did, and it’s much more difficult for scientists to raise funds for their work. They have to be better communicators.”[1] Scott agrees and cites a more fundamental reason that its vital to learn how to communicate science effectively. “You have to do it all the time.”

[1] http://www.27east.com/mobile/article.cfm//East-End/561784/Alan-Aldas-New-Podcast-Extends-His-Mission-To-Make-Communication-Crystal-Clear

Avoid Common Science Presentation Pitfalls –Take Scott’s Advice

Deconstruct Multi-part Visuals

Scott says, “Recognize when things are too complicated to get the message across. Make things big. Simplify them.”

This multi-panel map shows the same image several times. So often someone puts up an illustration like this with a caption at the bottom that you can’t even read. Then they say -If you look at the middle plot at the bottom, you’ll notice… but you can’t see it because there are five other plots distracting you.

Scott says, “If you want to show one thing, show just that one thing.” He adds, “If it is important to make comparisons with other illustrations, first give people a chance to get oriented before you ask them to compare.”

Avoid Unnecessary Complexity

The slide below depicts installed wind capacity using ten data points, two logos, the date and time, and a background image that’s related to the topic.  It’s filled with many extraneous elements for the viewer to decipher.

Scott says: “When you strip out the extra details and use color effectively, you have a more useful image that makes a single point. The simplified version makes it crystal clear at a glance that Minnesota is one of the top five wind producing states in the country.”

Use Highlighting to Make Your Point

Scott warns against using a visual created for a printed publication – as is – in a slide presentation. Readers can go at their own pace to take in the details of a visual that’s in print.  For a slide presentation, you will always want to simplify the content and design.

Scott says: “Use highlighting so people in the audience have a reasonable chance of seeing what you want to show without being distracted by other information that is not critically important to the point you want to make.”  In this example, one panel from the complex visual above that appeared in the Journal of Geophysical Research was extracted and labeling was added to call your attention to the significant decadal patterns.

Scott St. George is an Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada. Dr. St. George studies environmental variability at timescales that range from several weeks to several hundred years, with the goal of producing scientific knowledge that addresses the needs of decision-makers responsible for water supplies, renewable energy and natural hazards. His research specializations include dendrochronology and dendroclimatology, low-frequency behavior in the climate system, and the northern Great Plains during the late Holocene. Prior to joining the faculty at UMN, Dr. St. George was a Research Scientist with the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, Canada.