Switching Up Your Communication Style
By: Amara Huddleston
Communications & Program Analyst,
MAPP (Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, & Projections) Program ,
Climate Program Office
In the academic world, communication comes in the form of peer-reviewed papers, theses or dissertations, seminar talks, conference talks, and posters. All long format and so deep into the science that you’re no longer certain what language they’re speaking.
So, what do you do when you’ve been trained in those styles of communication for the past five years and you begin a communications position in the federal government as part of the Knauss fellowship program for a climate modeling program?
Well, you spend three days reading a full paper about soil moisture science and trying to become an expert on soil moisture anomalies (still couldn’t quite tell you what that is), studying the paper so thoroughly that I would be sure to make all the right points so I could have all the right things to say to turn it into… wait for it... one digestible paragraph. And it wasn’t great.
That was it. I was terrible at this and should have never been allowed to take this position! What did I know about communicating climate modeling to a broad audience? Honestly, not much. Most of the science communicating I had done had been to people who were well-versed in my field of science and, most importantly, I had been well-versed in it. A little down on my luck, I decided to grab this challenge by the reins and take control: I took a communications training!...and stopped being so hard on myself because I was here to learn.
Me communicating climate science with the Science on a Sphere in Silver Spring, MD.
In my five months as a communications specialist for a climate modeling program I’ve learned quite a bit. Below, I share some general communication skills tips as well as some things I’ve been learning in my day-to-day that future Knauss fellows may find useful.
1. Change the structure of your writing
You want to disseminate information quickly to your audience. You want to start with the results, talk about why those results matter, and then provide the people with a little background info (but not too much!). People are busy and don’t want to have to spend a ton of time digesting dense scientific information. In grad school we learned the hourglass rule for writing: start with broad background information, narrow into what you’re focusing on, and then broaden back out to discuss how your research affects the scientific community. For these purposes, throw that model away! Telling the readers the results first allows you to get your message across quickly without bogging people down in details. If you’re highlighting a published article you can provide the link so people can deep dive on their own time.
2. Know your audience
The people that read my program’s website are mostly the people we fund: other climate modelers/scientists. They understand the language and can easily comprehend information without it being broken down to the most basic level. If I had known my audience I wouldn’t have spent three days deep diving into an incredibly long paper about modeling soil moisture and an even deeper dive into trying to learn what a soil moisture anomaly was. However, that isn’t always the case. Sometimes I write things for a broader audience and I need to take the time to explain complicated concepts. Which leads me to my next point.
At Capitol Hill Ocean Week, I communicated NOAA's work to several different audiences.
3. Become an “expert” in everything
While knowing your audience can help you gauge how much you need to know about a topic to communicate it to others, don’t be afraid to lean into the topic either. Take that deep dive when you can, read through that article, google the terms you don’t know, or ask someone in your office who does know. Learning about a field of science (or whatever field) outside of your own is fun and exciting! While you may not have PhD level knowledge of that field, by the end of it you’ll know more than when you started and you’ll know more than the average person. You’ll start to understand the language more and be able to eloquently communicate it to people. Trust me, I surprise myself sometimes when I’m able to rattle off the work that my program does.
4. Be yourself!
In the federal government there are some technicalities around communication. There’s a difference between simply talking about the science and voicing your opinion about the science (don’t worry if that doesn’t make sense to you, there’s a training for that!). Leave your opinion at the door but don’t leave yourself. Don’t be afraid to let your personality come through in your writing. It’s a tricky thing to navigate and even five months in I’m still trying to figure it out. If the people you’re working with are willing to let you have some fun with your writing, go for it! Communicating science doesn’t have to be stuffy; especially if you’re communicating to a broader non-scientific community. Play it up and make it fun! Don’t lose yourself in the work.
5. Share your ideas
You don’t get these positions in the Knauss Fellowship because you have a background in it, or have worked in the field for many years, or because you’re the expert. You get these positions because you come to the table with the basic skills needed to handle the job, your willingness to learn, and your fresh ideas. Take all those fresh, fun ideas you have and share them with your team. Particularly for a communications position, the people in that program probably don’t have a ton of time to think about how they communicate their work. That’s why they’ve hired someone to do it. Even if you’re coming into a communications team, a new perspective is highly valued. Your inexpertise is a strength not a weakness!
With this knowledge I’ve gained over the past few months I can now craft a paragraph about a paper in a couple of hours. I’ve also been able to expand my communication from writing to doing presentations and many of these same rules apply (especially the one about being yourself!). I strongly encourage scientists to learn how to communicate their work broadly, whether writing or presenting, not because you might end up being a communications specialist but because it’s a useful skill that allows you to connect your science to more people.