Communicating science—some ideas for newbies

I was asked by the international society of magnetic resonance in medicine to talk about twitter and blogging for science communication. Take home: Excite people with a story that is relevant to their experience, remove jargon (so much for including the jargony society name) and give the conclusion first! Here are some tips to get you started.

We are entering a new phase of science. In this new world, we are expected to make a more concerted effort to reach out and communicate with both scientists AND non-scientists. Why do this? How to do this?

Photo some @ismrm twits at #ismrm17     @jeffreyfdunn @Alex_leemans @badjiatef @silascribbles

I know blog is too short to answer all these questions but I hope to include enough to get you started. We scientists have isolated ourselves so much that the public don’t understand most of what we do. Many actually don’t trust scientists to be unbiased. You want to reach out but are a bit uncomfortable doing that. Many scientists don’t want to speak in public. The internet is designed for you. Twitter and blogging make it pretty simple.

Aim to excite, not to preach. Although we are tempted to explain why alternate facts are bad, leading by example will have more impact. If people get interested they will naturally learn. Keep blogs short, focused and backwards. By this I mean put the conclusions first and build the information as you go. Make it so one can read the first few lines and know what you are going to say.

Blogs can be useful to describe papers in layperson terms. You can use them to teach a subject. Research papers which are blogged about actually tend to have more citations. You might blog on a disease if you are working on that disease and target the public interest groups and patients. You might blog on how imaging works.

It is important to define your audience (demographic, etc). The style of writing and the subject should be consistent if you want to attract a particular group. Perhaps start with an anecdote about something that may relate specifically to your audience. Think of the elevator speech. Make a statement that will attract the person or group you are targeting. Try to understand your audience, whether a single person or a group. Who are you talking to? You would start a conversation differently if you are meeting your family, your research colleagues, a layperson who is sitting on a grant committee, a senior university administrator, etc etc. Have different opening lines or ideas for each audience regardless of whether you are sending a tweet or writing a blog.

How to blog can be a bit overwhelming. Ask another blogger. Blog software allows for creating categories so your blog might have different subjects with links to each subject.

It will take a bit of research to create your first blog. You need a site. You can go full on and buy your own domain. I use “godaddy” to purchase my domain and have an online host. I use wordpress to design the site. Universities often have software that allows you to create and host a website on the university server for free. Lots of websites also have free blogging options—do a search on blog software sites. Using the university is great if you are focusing on your own work. If you decide to blog about personal or other science topics, you might want your own site so there are no control or IP issues.

Read blogs. Get ideas. It is a wonderful and glorious online community of people writing because they are excited and want to reach out to people like you.

Check these out:

Magnetic Resonance in Medicine Highlights

just an editorial note: the MRM link above works of you click ismrm but not if you click the share symbol on the right. I don’t know why JFD


So, TWITTER. Short. Snappy, and with a lot of potential. Here are a few tips:

If you don’t want to tweet yet—fine. It is the best online newspaper around. Use the search icon to search for keywords. Start following people, universities, interest groups, newspapers, journals, magnetic resonance etc. How about the organizers and some members of the scicomm panel: @mrm_highlights @jeffreyfdunn @stikov @erikaraven @fmrib_karla @mrimark @Dee_Kay_Jay

When using twitter to communicate science, it is OK to tweet a lunch photo and some travel pics now and then, this makes the person seem human. Make sure you are polite. Bad tweets can haunt you forever. Consider the audience (again). If you post a photo of a scientist, put something interesting in to say why someone might want to know about this person.

Put something in your bio that relates to the image you want to project in your twitter account. Put in a photo. You may not want one of yourself but put in something-an image, hardware, cartoon, you doing something that you like to do. The bio is short but without it you won’t get many followers. Why would someone follow you if they don’t know what you are going to tweet about?

-include a photo in your tweets when you can. People love images, pictures, etc.

-include weblinks. If you publish a new paper you could tweet the link to the paper or pubmed citation. Tweet your lab website. These links make twitter very powerful in terms of conveying news. The tweet then becomes just a title pointing to the longer article you want to communicate

-include hashtags. #MRI #ISMRM17 related to the topic. Think about what someone might search for. Most hastags in twitter are too long and not too searchable.

-include @etc. By including someones twitter handle, the tweet will show up in their software as a mention. They will see it and have a higher probability of retweeting or reading it.

In conclusion, more info:

Thoughts on using social media as a scientist:

Thoughts on using twitter as a scientist:

AND, a peer reviewed article saying blogs will increase your publication readership! Enjoy cyberspace.

  1. Hoang, J. K., J. McCall, A. F. Dixon, R. T. Fitzgerald and F. Gaillard “Using Social Media to Share Your Radiology Research: How Effective Is a Blog Post?” J Am Coll Radiol 12(7): 760-5.

PURPOSE: The aim of this study was to compare the volume of individuals who viewed online versions of research articles in 2 peer-reviewed radiology journals and a radiology blog promoted by social media. METHODS: The authors performed a retrospective study comparing online analytic logs of research articles in the American Journal of Neuroradiology (AJNR) and the American Journal of Roentgenology (AJR) and a blog posting on from April 2013 to September 2014. All 3 articles addressed the topic of reporting incidental thyroid nodules detected on CT and MRI. The total page views for the research articles and the blog article were compared, and trends in page views were observed. Factors potentially affecting trends were an AJNR podcast and promotion of the blog article on the social media platforms Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter to followers of in February 2014 and August 2014. RESULTS: The total numbers of page views during the study period were 2,421 for the AJNR article and 3,064 for the AJR article. The blog received 32,675 page views, which was 13.6 and 10.7 times greater than AJNR and AJR page views, respectively, and 6.0 times greater than both journal articles combined. Months with activity above average for the blog and the AJNR article coincided with promotion by on social media. CONCLUSIONS: Dissemination of scientific material on a radiology blog promoted on social media can substantially augment the reach of more traditional publication venues. Although peer-reviewed publication remains the most widely accepted measure of academic productivity, researchers in radiology should not ignore opportunities for increasing the impact of research findings via social media.





Act your Science: improvisation training at U Calgary

Dennis Cahill, Loose Moose Theatre: improvisation with science graduate students

Your talk is next. There are hundreds of people in the audience. Your heart is beating so loudly you wonder if the person beside you can hear it. What if you screw up? You can’t focus on the speaker even though you had wanted to hear her for years

Is this you before your talk—or before your thesis presentation, or a job interview? What if you could train to reduce that anxiety? What do actors do? These thoughts led me to create “Act your Science?” at the University of Calgary. Did it help? Read on!

I came across the idea of using improvisation training to improve science communication skills years ago through Youtube. Alan Alda, a well-known actor (including the “MASH” television series), applied his acting and improvisation training to help scientists improve their communication. He developed the Alan Alda Centre for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. You can see some information here

There is a testimonial from Boston University in this link.

I stored that info. After all, I did drama in high school—this could be fun and interesting.

My interest in scicomm led me to setting up such an improvisation course although the journey didn’t start with that goal. I took the Banff Science Communication course with amazing communicators like Jay Ingram, Mary Anne Moser, John Rennie and more. I was surprised to see that improvisation was  included. The next incentive for starting an improvisation course came after I joined the Canadian Science Writers Association (now now the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada). I met Janice Benthin, the Executive Director. She had been thinking about organizing improvisation with Calgary members and had made contact with Dennis Cahill—artistic director of the Loose Moose Theatre company in Calgary and one of Canada’s top improvisation trainers.

It began to feel like we had an idea that might be achievable.

Who would come, and how would we pay for it?

I wanted to do something special for graduate students in the area of STEM research at the University of Calgary. I approached the Graduate Students Association for funding through their “Quality Money” program and voila—we had funding. I approached the Faculty of Graduate studies for administrative help and ideas—and voila, we had rooms and a recruitment plan.

A month later, “Act your Science” was born. I was in a room at the University of Calgary together with 15 graduate students, Dennis, and a lot of uncertainty about whether this was going to work.

In short, we had an absolute blast. The main theme running through the course was the idea of learning to fail gracefully in front of an audience. Training with this in mind greatly reduced “presenter anxiety”. The group began very tentatively as expected. There were a lot of pauses and embarrassed looks to each other. By the end, people were jumping up from their seats to volunteer. The transition from not wanting to be in front of people, to knowing you can  have a good time even if you make a mistake, was complete. The comfort level with presenting, even in those where English is a second language, was much higher. In the final evaluations, everyone said that their ability to communicate was improved.

And, bonus, we learned even more. A second big theme was to “be in the moment”. We learned how to focus on the message, the story, and the others on stage—all while maintaining connection with the audience. We learned to trust that a story will unfold, even if it is not memorized. This lead to the presentations being much more relaxed and less forced. The presenters became communicators and not just scientists repeating memorized sentences. We learned to trust that if we walked up in front of an audience, we had the skills to engage without memorizing. During the first course, one of the “English as a second language” students attended a conference where they won the best podium presentation! Don’t just rely on my word. Here is a blog from Jennifer, one of the students.

So, success. And fun.

We played games and laughed. We bonded as a group, through shared embarrassment and success. We learned to steal each other’s hats, to speak in one voice, to think in the moment, to make connections with the audience and to be acutely aware of others. This was all done through games, many off which would sound a bit silly if I just described them.

The games gave us the practice and confidence to talk to an audience (not just AT the audience) and, when you forgot your line or idea, to fail gracefully. After all, isn’t worrying about those problems what makes you anxious before speaking to an audience.

Imagine not having that anxiety.