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Top Five Science Communication Tips From NASA’s FameLab

Horner (at right) speaks with astrobiologists at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Horner (at right) speaks with astrobiologists at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Still prepping your video audition for that PBS chemistry show hosting gig? Then you might want to glean some tips from an ongoing NASA competition. It’s the NASA Astrobiology FameLab, and it’s essentially a search for the next Carl Sagan.

FameLab, founded in the U.K. in 2005, is all about the power of words to get the public and stakeholders excited about science. No slides, no graphs allowed in your short presentation.

That can be daunting for most scientists, especially the early-career folks FameLab seeks. So FameLab’s organizers include a mentoring and training component in the competition. For Friday’s preliminary FameLab round at National Geographic in D.C., that mentor was Beth Horner, an award-winning professional storyteller. Last Friday afternoon at NASA headquarters, Horner put 25 young astrobiologists through their storytelling paces. I journeyed to NASA to bring you the top five tips for science communication from her workshop. Here they are:

5) “Never do anything off the cuff. Always plan.”
It’s easy to think that you’ll be able to come up with a way to explain your work on the fly, but you’re less likely to forget a part of your message if you structure things in advance, Horner says. She showed workshop attendees how to storyboard and led several exercises in which she asked the scientists to write down three lines about something–themselves, a mentor in their field, or key aspects of their research. “That three-line thing is the start of a structure,” she said. Questions or issues might come up during your talk that may force you to improvise somewhat, she added, but you should let your structure be a guide so you don’t veer off course.

4) “It’s not about you. It’s about this information you’re trying to get across.”
Horner mentioned this mantra as a way of calming nerves onstage or on camera.

Early-career astrobiologists listen to Horner at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

Early-career astrobiologists listen to Horner at the FameLab workshop. (Drahl/C&EN)

3) “Always try out your material on someone else.”
Horner always runs story ideas and analogies by colleagues to see what they think. “I ask them, ‘Do you care about this?’,” she says. “You get in your own head sometimes and it’s hard to get out,” but an outside perspective can give you clues about what might resonate with a listener and what won’t, she says.

2) “Tell a story.”
Every culture on Earth has a storytelling tradition, Horner says. “That means something,” she adds. Stories were a way for people to pass down lessons and traditions, and there’s something about their structure that sticks with you. It isn’t easy to structure science like a story, but the approach is likely to pay off, she says.

1) “Know your listener and connect with them.”
Communicating science with the general public might be too general a term as far as Horner is concerned. A talk will need to be different for 2nd graders, high school students, and policymakers. Know the issues that your audience cares about and relate your work to them, Horner says. When she travels for a storytelling gig, she asks the person who picks her up at the airport what the zeitgeist of the area is, and whether any big events have happened there lately. Then she adapts her story to what she learns.

I livetweeted the competition at National Geographic on Friday night. Congratulations to winner Noah Hammond of the SETI Institute!

Want more FameLab? Watch entries on the FameLab YouTube channel.

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