Hello fellow science communicators,
We’ve all had experience of thinking long and hard about how to craft a message, and finding that it misses the mark. It’s difficult to do well! We need to craft different messages for different audiences and media.
In this newsletter, we look at four aspects of getting your message right:
When preparing for an online workshop session with Young Farming Champions recently, I spent a bit of time considering what makes messages resonate with an audience. What makes them stick, and more importantly, what creates change?
I developed a mnemonic to capture the factors that I think lead to compelling messages:
Motivated – What is driving you to communicate? What do you want to achieve?
Empathy – Who do you want to communicate with? Have you tried standing in their shoes?
Specific – What is the concrete (not abstract) message that you want to convey?
Simple – Have you considered what your audience could misunderstand?
Acknowledge uncertainty – How sure are you of your information?
Game-changer – Does your message include a call for change, in attitudes or actions?
Enable – Have you detailed how people can change?
After the workshop, one participant, Bryan Van Wyk tested one of his favourite videos: Born Free, Caught Wild: The Northern Prawn Industry (8:41 min.). His assessment: motivated – yes; empathetic – yes; specific – kind of, but there’s a lot of information to digest; simple – relatively; acknowledging uncertainty – thinks so; game-changing – the message was to buy Australian and MSC-certified prawns, but it could have been clearer; and enabling – as above, it could have been clearer.
Bryan Van Wyk shared a photo of his work noticeboard, with his summary of the message mnemonic. Photo: Bryan Van Wyk.
Communicating everyday “science in the making” on TikTok
By Michelle Riedlinger
I recently came across some useful research for science communicators interested in using TikTok to engage users on this platform. This research by Jing Zeng (University of Zurich) and her colleagues inspired me to look further into what it means to create engaging science content for TikTok:
Educational content must be entertaining. Videos of repeated DIY experiments with shocking or surprising outcomes or creativity get more engagement (likes, shares and comments). Popular accounts with humour or science satire also attract many viewers. But the focus on fun, surprising or weird scientific facts can attract memetic video producers to engage in pseudoscience or misinformation, e.g. #soysaucechallenge.
TikTok science explainers are casual and relatable. Engaging science explainers are everyday people rather than science authorities. See, for example, @sciencebyashley and @sciencewithana. TikTokers’ technical savviness with the platform (creative use of sound, visuals, editing and filters) also add to their appeal.
Recognised online science media outlets and broadcasters with a strong presence on other platforms are making some of the most engaging explanatory content for the TikTok community, perhaps because of their access to high-quality visual content and professional editing capabilities. Science Alert, ASAP Science and Science Insider provide inspiration.
The medium is (part of) the message
By Toss Gascoigne
Fifteen years ago, Client Solutions published the second edition of their study, Politicians’ Lobbying Preferences.
Like the original study of 1994, the report was based on a detailed survey of members and senators of Federal Parliament. What were the most effective approaches groups could take when seeking the help of politicians?
The survey asked key questions about meetings:
where to meet
when to meet
what to avoid doing
the effectiveness of varying advocacy techniques.
The Canadian researcher Marshall McLuhan said that “the medium is the message”. However, getting the message right depends on not just the words, but also the context.
The top five messaging mistakes nominated by politicians were:
not appreciating time constraints
ambit claims—proposals so extravagant that they can’t possibly be accepted
wasting time on insignificant issues
lack of local electoral focus
misstating the facts.
Avoiding these mistakes boils down to careful planning and thinking about the audience: what do they want from you? Why have they agreed to meet you? What are they likely to get wrong about your work?
This will shape the messages you take into meetings. With an MP, count on a 20-minute meeting, so get to the point immediately and be specific about what you want the person to do. Don’t raise a problem without having a solution in mind—that irritates politicians, and other audiences, too.
Here’s a script for your conversation.
“Minister, thanks for making time to meet with us. We have a problem and we’re seeking your help to address it.”
Describe the problem. The Minister will probably ask questions. Give examples.
“Now, Minister, there are three things we are asking you to do. These are: 1, 2, 3.”
Times have moved on, but 15 years later the basic lesson rings true: to be an effective communicator, understand your audience.
You can read highlights of Committee Bulletin’s 2006 survey of politicians lobbying preferences.
Tips for explaining risk
By Jenni Metcalfe
Did you know that the risk of getting a blood clot after an AstraZeneca vaccination is higher than the risk of being killed by a cow? And the risk of dying from a blood clot after vaccination is about the same as being killed by a cow?
Make you feel less vaccine-hesitant? Unlikely, but this was a fact included in a UK newspaper, and then discussed in a fact-checking article.
Other analogies used to explain vaccine risk have compared it to the chances of being killed in a car crash or being injured.
The trouble with such death-by-cow analogies is that, though they may be accurate, they don’t reflect how people perceive and react to risk.
Even though 1,200 people die and 40,000 are hospitalised each year from injuries sustained in road accidents in Australia, people choose to get into cars. Some people believe food preservatives and pesticides are more dangerous to their health than the way they store and preserve food.
Why do we behave so irrationally? Because people believe the actions they choose and have control over are less risky than those they don’t control.
In communicating risk, it is important to:
Find out the beliefs, attitudes and experiences of your audience; for example, farmers have a much higher risk of being killed by a cow than the rest of the population does.
Use real figures (like the first 2 rows in the table below).
Avoid analogies that compare involuntary actions with voluntary actions.
Acknowledge any uncertainty—what you don’t know and why.
Consider the visuals—people will relate to a message conveyed in a supermarket or from the dining room table much better than they will a lab with danger signs everywhere.