Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science
Sep09

Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science

Actor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it). But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public. Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better. Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another. To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.” I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience. She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. After years of hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS (1993 to 2005), Alda has gathered a number of tips on communicating science. Using a conversational tone is one, of course. Story telling is another, he told the crowd in Indianapolis. But not just telling any story....

Read More
Top Five Science Communication Tips From NASA’s FameLab
Mar12

Top Five Science Communication Tips From NASA’s FameLab

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. 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...

Read More
The Science of Comedy
Feb22

The Science of Comedy

In this International Year of Chemistry--a period when we chemists are set to celebrate the central science and hype its benefits to the public--communication skills are of the utmost importance. Presentation style is key to drawing a general audience in, and a little humor doesn't hurt either. This was on my mind while I was listening to science comedian Brian Malow speak this weekend at the AAAS meeting in Washington D.C. Although he certainly did do some stand-up, Malow (click here to read a previous C&EN interview) wasn't there just to get a couple of laughs. He was there to give attendees pointers on how to liven up their presentations. "Be yourself, be human, be passionate, be present and engaged, and be prepared," he advised. Sure, Malow slipped in some of the "walked into a bar" jokes that he's known for (see video clip I found to watch him in action), but he actually had some serious suggestions. To a packed room of people huddled in corners and sitting on the floor, Malow proposed that anyone could be funny with some practice. In general, comedy is innate (you've either got it or you don't), but the comedian insisted that scientists could draw in an audience with a few zingers by being good Boy and Girl Scouts and being thoroughly prepared. Use analogies, he suggested, after plying the attendees with one about smokers at the airport puffing away in those designated glass-walled rooms. It's like a zoo, he quipped, and you can educate your kids about the endangered smoking species--Homo emphyzemus--that way. "By exaggerating the relationship, it gets the meaning across," he added. Malow also suggested using word play to write jokes. Write down lists of words and concepts, and start matching them to come up with surprising metaphors, he said. Chemistry, in particular, is full of words with dual meanings. Before a talk he gave for the American Chemical Society, he said, an organizer asked whether he could do something off the cuff. "I'm so spontaneous, I have a negative delta G," he said with panache. And here's another one: "I was in an excited state, and I had a spontaneous emission." Working in analogies and entertainment at the start of a presentation really sets the tone, he said. Some chemists might say they shouldn't have to tap dance for their audiences in this way. But later that afternoon, in a session I was attending on neuroprosthetics, there it was: a great talk. It was entertaining, filled with videos, and replete with analogies (maybe not humorous, but very helpful) to explain the technique electrocorticography (ECoG). Traditional methods of tapping into the brain to measure electrical...

Read More