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Hello fellow communicators,

Scientists sometimes claim that science communicators “dumb down” their ideas and words. But the best communication of science distils the essence of the scientist’s work. Interpretive centres show this clearly, portraying big ideas in few words, excluding most technical language, and embracing different cultural values to reach the widest audience.

In this newsletter, we look at five principles of distilling scientific information.

The interpretive centres referenced in this newsletter were all undertaken with our partner, Brandi Projects, who design, build and manage the projects.

We hope you enjoy this newsletter and welcome your feedback.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam: Jenni MetcalfeToss Gascoigne, Claire Heath, Michelle Riedlinger & Madeleine Stirrat.

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Distil, don’t dumb down

By Jennifer Metcalfe

I too often hear the words: “You need to dumb it down”. But “dumbing it down” carries the risk of oversimplification.

You can speak and write simply about a complex topic by distilling its essence. Challenge people with your ideas rather your language. Here are my 7 top tips:

  1. Choose short, simple words: use not utilise; show not demonstrate; before not prior to.
  2. Cull redundant words: We need to do more research in the future. The research is basically complete.
  3. Use qualifying words rather than long explanations, e.g. Our research may lead to new …
  4. Prefer active voice to passive voice for shorter, more engaging text: “We ran field trials” rather than “Field trials were conducted”.
  5. Include only as much detail as your audience wants to know: more detail for a scientific audience, less for community members wanting to understand the implications.
  6. State very clearly the information that your target audience could get wrong.
  7. Test your writing with a sample of your target audience and ask for feedback.

The last 3 points reflect my top principle for effective science communication: understand your audience and their perceptions, concerns and communication needs.

Omit needless words!

By Toss Gascoigne

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is a classic on how to write. It’s short, pungent and direct:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he should avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

Just 63 words. William Strunk was a man of few words and in lecturing he compensated by uttering every sentence three times: “Rule seventeen. Omit needless words! Omit needless words! Omit needless words!”

E.B. White (who later wrote Charlotte’s Web) was taught by Strunk at Cornell University. Strunk published his book in 1935, and White subsequently revised, expanded and republished it under their joint names.

Just as Strunk was a hero to White, White was a hero to William Zinsser, the author of another classic, On Writing Well. Here’s Zinsser in action:

“But the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest component. Every word that serves no function, every long word could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what – these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.”

Zinsser’s book includes an image of his own editing, a page with corrections, arrows and crossings-out scrawled across it. He practised what he preached; note that this was no first draft, but had already been re-written four or five times.

As Strunk might have said: Eliminate clutter! Eliminate clutter! Eliminate clutter!

An excerpt from On Writing Well shows attention to making the text tighter and clearer. Source: Amazon.

To build a great interp centre, first gather, then cull and clarify
By Claire Heath

When Econnect develops an interpretive centre, we start with understanding the story the client wants to tell. That clarifies our scope.

Then we research, gathering words, images, videos, audio, and people to interview. Themes begin to come into focus.

We collaborate with the client and the graphic designers so that we know how much space we have to work with, and which raw materials the client wants to use. It’s not just about what is used: we must allow space for all the elements to “breathe” so the centre is an engaging place to visit.

The elements may include a wall-sized photo, groups of small images ranged around the displays, specimens to be mounted, and hand-on tasks or learning games. We always end up with far more material than we can use.

Now the task is to distil the material into the most salient points, plus a few “wow” facts to foster a sense of wonder. We want the language (whether words or images) to hang together, with the same tone, degree of complexity and level of formality. This means changing scientific or humanities language into the ordinary language of people conversing. It must be something that school children and adults can understand.

To me, improving focus isn’t dumbing down: it’s distilling and clarifying.

Next, we edit the whole text, including captions and words on interactive elements, cutting and changing to ensure it is seamless.

In the final stage, all the elements are laid out in the design, and we see how well it works together and what parts are still too long. More clarifying and culling!

Sure, a lot of interesting and important material ends up being excluded, but sometimes we can include QR codes to expand on the information presented. If people are intrigued by what they see, they’ll seek out more information.

Connect people with places by embracing many cultures
By Michelle Riedlinger

Emily Dawson from the University College London has done some inspiring work to highlight equity and social justice in science communication. She has involved communicators in a mission to recognise, represent, respect and value a wide range of cultural practices, knowledges and languages.

The Econnect team applied her approach to our interpretation design for the Boondall Wetlands Environment Centre. The centre aims to connect people to place in the past, present and future; and the interactives acknowledge and celebrate Boondall’s many communities and their activities.

We developed a timeline that started 60,000 years ago to acknowledge the enduring care of the area by the traditional owners. They call the wetlands “warra”. In the Yuggera language, this means “an expanse of water”. We included a seasonal food calendar based on what is available in each Aboriginal season to recognise the ongoing relationship of traditional food gatherers to the area.

We encourage visitors to walk the Tulla-yugaipa dhagun track. The track name means “place of useful plants” and celebrates the continued use of native plants by local Aboriginal people.

Tulla-yugaipa dhagun track sign at Boondall wetlands

Many community activists helped save the Boondall wetlands from development, and we recognise their contribution by telling their stories and displaying their photographs. We highlighted the Black Fellas White Fellas project, run by Uncle Lester Mills and John Bowden. It explores the dual Aboriginal and European history of the area through poetry, music and photographs.

We created a “faces wall” to celebrate the activities of people who visit, and work and volunteer at the Boondall wetlands. Visitors can interact with the various faces to find out what these people do and what they love about the wetlands.

The “faces wall” represents and values the experiences of young visitors to Boondall

I’m proud of the interpretative work we’ve done on this project, but there’s more we should be doing to show our respect for a diversity of voices in Australia. Despite a range of policies and practices around language diversity, a recent study of signs on an Australian university campus found that languages other than English were rarely used. If one of our goals as communicators is to connect people with places, then we can start by noticing and appreciating the cultures and languages of these people.

Engagement means letting go of technical terminology
By Madeleine Stirrat

Each of us has a favoured learning style: auditory, visual or kinaesthetic. Schools put a lot of focus on designing curriculum to cater to the learning needs of children – but why doesn’t this apply to adults?

Somewhere along the line, we stop valuing different modes of learning. Adults are expected to conform to the expectations of their workplaces and places they visit to learn. I think this can impair people’s understanding, their lifelong learning, and their ability to sustain curiosity.

When Econnect designs information for interpretive centres, we are often catering to a secondary school audience as a baseline. We layer more, and less, complex information to keep visitors with a range of abilities and motivations interested. We bring in the senses and ask ourselves: How do we communicated these ideas visually? Tangibly? Auditorily?

We have very few words to engage visitors in complex topics such as carbon sequestration or taxonomic classification. In a recent project, we communicated the carbon storage cycle with graphics and mimicked the flow of carbon in the atmosphere and substrate with lights. To present the complex classification of local animals simply, we used a pair-up memory game.

With limited space and a need to stimulate as many senses as we can, the technical terminology has to go.

It’s about getting across the concept of a process, or the wow factor of an environment. People won’t absorb all the appropriate terminology. But in the case of interpretive centres, if you can instil an understanding of connections, processes and consequences, the three targets of comprehension, then it’s job well done.

At Boondall Wetlands Environment Centre, we developed an interactive game to show migratory threats and habits of many species dependent on Australia’s wetlands. 

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