How to Train Your Biologist in the Art of Communication

“The two words information and communication are often used interchangeably, but they signify quite different things.  Information is giving out; communication is getting through.” -Sidney Harris

Have you ever had a conversation with a biologist about his/her field work or research? If so, there’s a chance you became utterly confused somewhere between all of the acronyms and bizzaro scientific jargon.  At work, I am surrounded by some of the most intelligent biologists on the planet.  I even married one!  But as brilliant as they are, even the brightest PhDs need a little help getting a point across.

That’s why I look forward to my bi-yearly invitation to speak with biology graduate students at the University of South Alabama.  An amazing professor and Senior Marine Scientist named Dr. Ruth Carmichael invites local journalists and PR gurus to coach the students on how to pitch their research. (Environmental reporter Ben Raines and  PR Director Angela Levins with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab also join me on that panel.)

Hey, I feel for them.  Most of their lives, they’ve only had to communicate with other scientists who understand the lingo.

The problem?

  • Although many scientists are skilled at research, field techniques and speaking with other scientists, they have a hard time communicating with non-scientists.
  • The public’s lack of understanding diminishes a biologists’ hard work.
  • A break-down in communication can be detrimental to their success.

Why should a biologist care?

  • Your ideas and work will flourish if you communicate effectively.
  • Your peers will respect you.
  • Good communication leads to better jobs.
  • Good communication helps obtain $$$$.
  • Good communication gives science a voice.
  • Non-scientists must understand you to make an informed decision.
  • Perception is reality.

Why is this so complicated?

Reference – Effective Public Relations (Broom, 2009, p.343)

  • Difficulty expressing scientific work into understandable messages
  • Distortion from compressing lengthy events into short messages
  • Gatekeepers in the media (Not everyone will care)
  • Audience has little time to pay attention
  • Fear of facing facts perceived to threaten and establish routines. (Climate change comes to mind)

The Study Guide for Accreditation in Public Relations gives great pointers on how to overcome these barriers.  (I wish I were smart enough to come up with these on my own!)

  • Define your audiences. (There is no such thing as the general public. Are you speaking to a professor?  Policy maker? Influencer?)
  • Identify your social relationship with them.
  • Understand the context and frames of reference of your relationship.
  • Choose the proper medium to convey your message (Hint: It’s not always a press release.  Remember that eyeball that washed ashore?  The story went viral on social media.  No press release involved).

Bottom line for biologists?

  • Be accessible!
  • Don’t be condescending to your audience
  • Speak in simple terms. (One thought per sentence is a good rule of thumb!)
  • Avoid acronyms. (My personal pet peeve)
  • Always ask yourself, “why should they care?”  Make them care!
  • Take a communication course. It will absolutely pay off and your return on investment is priceless! (Toastmasters is awesome!)


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