“Be enthusiastic!” and other SciComm highlights from Winnipeg 2019
By: Jay Whetter
Eureka! You just discovered how to clean up the Earth and save lots of lives. But if you speak about the breakthrough in a dull monotone, betraying its value with your lack of emotion, it may not get the attention it deserves. You certainly won’t get a spot on CBC’s Quirks and Quarks. “You have to be enthusiastic!” the radio show host Bob McDonald implored to his audience during his closing keynote address at the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference in Winnipeg.
Think about the science conversations you remember. They’re the interviews where the investigators are fired up about their work. You latch on to the rising voice, bright eyes and arm gestures, and you can’t help but engage in the conversation and absorb the message. Enthusiasm is an essential science communication tool.
Bob McDonald’s “Be enthusiastic!” was one of many scicomm tips and tools from the Winnipeg 2019 conference. I gathered another 12:
- Be as ‘open’ as you can be. If you are the communications lead for a research lab in an urban area where people might be nervous about the work, be exceeding open. That is the communications approach for the National Microbiology Lab, which houses the world’s most infectious and dangerous pathogens within a residential neighbourhood in Winnipeg’s core. During a pre-conference tour, Jana Wilson, Health Canada communications advisor at the Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health, which houses the NML, shared two of their community communication techniques.
Every five years the facility holds an open house. Guests don’t get into high risk areas, obviously, but they get to enter the building, see the bright space, talk to the staff and experience the general calm of the place. Just before our tour, the facility had its 20th anniversary open house. Three thousand people came.
The lab’s other communication cornerstone is to send out a news release any time something happens in the lab that breaches the strict employee and public safety safeguards. For example, they sent out a release after a scientist handling ebola didn’t realize he had a two centimetre tear in his protective suit. It was addressed immediately, he was tested (and was fine), but the lab alerted the public anyway. Why? Because while this announcement might raise some questions in the short term, it would be much, much worse if the public found out through an ‘access to information’ application, Wilson says.
- Acknowledge your bias. Indigenous Elder Wilfred Buck, who provided the opening keynote on Indigenous knowledge and the cosmos, reminded us that no one is unbiased. We all have our notions of how things should be and how people should behave, often based on our own life experiences and influences. Buck encourages us to recognize this bias and try to put it aside when reporting, especially on Indigenous topics. (As a #scicomm bonus, Buck was also wearing a T-shirt that read “Periodically speaking: TaNSi” with the Ta (tantalum), N (nitrogen) and Si (silicon) in periodic table squares. ‘Tansi’ is a Cree greeting, like ‘Hello’.)
- Explore without an agenda, see where it takes you. This was my ‘take home’ from the presentation, “Developing trust with communities when reporting on Indigenous issues,” by Martha Troian and David McLeod. Their talk built on Buck’s message about bias. They encouraged reporters to visit Indigenous communities without a story angle or a short deadline for a quick soundbite. Instead, take time to build trust, talk to people and let the narrative take its own shape. Troian and McLeod recommend this website: Reporting in Indigenous Communities.
- Write a book. Kevin Brownlee, curator of archaeology at the Manitoba Museum, shared excerpts from his latest book, Stories of the Old Ones: Hunter and Fisher from Sheltered Water. A description on the Manitoba Museum website reads: ‘Four thousand years ago in southeastern Manitoba, a young man we call the Hunter and Fisher from Sheltered Water was laid to rest by his relatives along the shores of the Lee River. The discovery of his remains and personal belongings led to the development of a collaborative research project between Sagkeeng Anicinabe Government and the Manitoba Museum. This book chronicles the project from the recovery, study, and reburial of this Ancestor.’
- Get a PowerPoint mentor. Marianne Marcoux’s PowerPoint on her narwhal research was well organized, multi-media (including an audio clip of narwhal conversation) and visually very attractive. In an email afterward, I asked how she learned to use PowerPoint so effectively?
“About 12 years ago, when I was a Ph.D. student, I was invited to give a talk on narwhals to a group of about 100 high school students as part of an event at the Coeur des Sciences in Montreal. The director, Sophie Malavoy, who is a science communicator and also provides training, went through my talk with me a couple of weeks before the event. We worked on it together and she gave me tricks to engage the students and use story telling. She is an amazing communicator and was very enthusiastic about my research. I learned a lot from this experience and it gave me confidence to give more talks. I have also noticed that people find the journey to getting scientific data as interesting as the science data itself. I try to use that in my talks.”
As a follow up, I asked Marcoux how she checks to make sure embedded videos work properly. “For the SWCC talk, I arrived 30 minutes before the beginning of the session to test it. It turned out that the videos did not work. However, I usually have a back-up plan. I had brought my own computer so I was able to play the videos from it. It is also good to have the videos separately from the PowerPoint as a backup. It is usually possible to get out of the PowerPoint presentation to play videos.” She shares this video, which highlights some of the clips she used in her talk.
- Try something different. Radio stations and real estate agents plaster buses with their faces, but have you ever heard of a research project doing that? John Iacozza, executive director with the Centre for Earth Observation Science, shared some of the communications tools they used to promote Expedition Churchill: A Gateway to Arctic Research. One was to wrap a Via Rail train car with an ad for the program.
- When you’re constantly under fire, try to broaden perspectives. Trish Jordan worked for 20 years as the communications point person for Monsanto Canada. (She now works for Bayer CropScience, which bought Monsanto.) In a panel on “How to break through to consumers with truth vs myth on science and health”, Jordan shared her experience on how to engage positively when most incoming calls are attacks. “It’s not necessarily about trying to change viewpoints,” Jordan says, “but to broaden perspectives when engaging in conversation about difficult, science-based topics.
Can you get folks to consider that things may not be like they think or like what they have come to believe?” Jordan also calls on journalists to help the public to “get risk right”, to help people understand where an issue fits within the environmental and health risk perspectives.
Be careful with oversimplification. We may need to ‘dumb down’ complex scientific concepts for a mass audience, but this simplification still has to be accurate. And that’s not so easy. Michel Aliani studies metabolism at the University of Manitoba. As part of his presentation, he showed a wildly complex map of the body’s chemical metabolic pathways for specific lipids, sugars, amino acids, vitamins and more. The body runs on endogenous compounds (which are already present in the body) and exogenous compounds (which may come from diet as well as drugs and medications), and most of these compounds are shown on the map.
In his presentation, he circled 20 areas within this graphic where obesity is known to affect metabolic pathways. Aliani says a study that looks at only one of these pathways might be missing the bigger picture. For science communications on human health and nutrition, he recommends that journalists ask the researchers which metabolites are up-regulated and which are down-regulated with the treatment studied. If the research project didn’t have the objective or the budget to dig into the whole metabolism complex, ask how this study advances the breadth of our metabolic knowledge. This context is important. "All of these pathways are known. Nothing happens in the body in isolation. So the idea that we can study one of these compounds or pathways without considering the whole-body effect is naive in 2019,” Aliani says. “Journalists want the simple story, but to achieve simplicity in a way that is correct and accurate is a real art. Accurate reporting relies on teamwork between the journalist and the scientist.”
- More is not better if you have to use tiny fonts. Visual design is an important part of communication, and one major design faux pas is the use of tiny fonts to pack more information into a poster or slide. This makes your communication worse, not better, says Julia Krolik, who shared broad tips for good design in a 30-minute pre-lunch presentation. Krolik is the founder of Art the Science and Pixels & Plans.
Other notable Krolik tips: White space is good. Use symmetry and consistency in column width, font size and typeface. Avoid underlines for emphasis (people will think it's a link). Don’t right-hand justify because it can create odd-looking ‘rivers’ of space through a paragraph.
- Don’t undervalue your work. I didn’t get to the Freelance Skill Share Extraordinaire, so I asked session leads Lesley Evans Ogden and Niki Wilson to provide a few common threads. Money was a big one. “Don’t work for low pay. Charge what you’re worth,” Ogden Evans says.
Other tips: Know a publication’s editorial calendar and its writer’s guidelines before pitching. Find a trusted friend or group to workshop pitches with. Be a reliable, dependable writer. And network.“One other thing that came out strongly,” Wilson says, “is the need to find a mentor that can really guide you through the world of writing and freelancing, and maybe even introduce you to some people in the industry.” Ogden Evans and Wilson have an idea along these lines for Ottawa 2020, so stay tuned.
- Use charm – if you’ve got it. Jean-Eric Ghia opened his talk with the usual “How are you?” but with a twist. When Ghia, a gut researcher, asks “How are you?”, he wants to know if you had a good poop today. His words. Ghia, who moonlights as the Consulate of France for Winnipeg, effectively used his charm and wit to keep the audience engaged. Science doesn’t have to be stuffy. Humour and charm, in natural and small doses, can make for memorable presentations and a breakthrough in communications.
Follow good live-tweeters and learn from them. I got an unexpected lesson in live tweeting while going back over Rhonda Moore’s Twitter feed @R_mmoore. I was looking for one tweet in particular and found so much ‘moore’. (Does a pun count as a small dose of humour?) She captured dozens of tour highlights, presentation slides and dynamite quotes. If you can’t attend a conference but @R_mmoore is there, just follow her Twitter feed. She might not have time for much live-tweeting at next year’s @SWC_Can conference in Ottawa – she’s an organizer – but the rest of us have a year to practice.
Some of my most memorable moments from the conference came during the side conversations. This networking is often the best reason to attend a conference in person. I met Meghan Azad, who researches the breast-milk microbiome and mother-to-baby and (surprise!) baby-to-mother sharing of beneficial microbes. She pitched her discovery to Quirks & Quarks and they interviewed her.
Sharon Basaraba, whose questions coaxed a lot of dig-deeper conversations throughout the event, also reminded me that it’s OK to take time to balance work and family.
During our ‘Dine Around’ supper at Peasant Cookery in Winnipeg’s Exchange District, Carolyn Brown, who has done a lot of work in Mexico, shared a few Nahuatl words in common use today. The old Indigenous language of Mexico gave us the words avocado, tomato, coyote, cocoa and more.
As my final example, I present Phil Ferguson, space systems engineer. He explained to me, a farm journalist, how researchers are programming satellites and drones to read large farm-field images and work together to provide targeted useful information without humans having to sort through terabyte-sized files. He also suggested that, when it comes to aerospace research and investment, we might advance more quickly if researchers could take a few more chances and have a little more scope to fail. Ferguson has the most awesome beard and waxed moustache, but what really stood out for me was his enthusiasm. He provided strong supporting evidence that Bob McDonald’s “Be enthusiastic!” advice works to bring your work to a broader audience. I will be talking with Ferguson again.
I’ll close with a paraphrase of another line from Bob McDonald: “Canada needs more science communicators”. I encourage anyone with an interest in science communications to attend the annual Science Writers and Communicators of Canada conference. Being there in person expands your personal and our collective breadth of knowledge, communication skills and community. With colleagues and mentors and friends from across the country improving together, we strengthen the #SciComm community and hopefully create a welcome home for more science communicators. See you in Ottawa in 2020.
Jay Whetter grew up on a farm in Manitoba, attended journalism school and has worked 20 years as a farm journalist. A big part of his job is taking new agriculture science and sharing it with farmers. His Twitter handles are @CanolaWatch and @KenoraJay.
If you have more highlights from Winnipeg 2019 or ideas for Ottawa 2020, share them with the SWCC at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook @SWCCanada.