On September 14th 2017 the Swiss Meteorological Society (SGM) and the Center for Climate Systems Modeling (C2SM) organised a workshop on weather and climate communication at ETH Zurich. The participants learned about the best ways to present their research topics to the general public – a challenge that might be underestimated by many scientists. Science journalist Beat Glogger of scitec media discussed the different ways in which the scientific community and the public perceive scientific results. In our discussions with peers, we typically start with a description of the methods, then show, based on observational or modeling facts, some exciting new findings at the end. To the public, however, this is often rather difficult to grasp. This is particularly the case if the results are presented in a ‘typical’ scientific language, e.g. using passive language formulations, with many nouns listed in a row (the “sin” of nominalism), and often listing fact after fact with no concrete link to the ‘real world’ experience of the layperson. Indeed, one of the key messages to take home from Beat Glogger’s presentation is that it becomes much easier to remember results if they are anchored in everyday experiences, or if they are directly related to emotions. So, if we are presenting results about aerosols we could start with the dangers that an open fire within a closed room might bring.
A second key idea, which I personally like very much, is that we should streamline our scientific articles or presentations in such a way that they tell a story. How often do we read articles that lack this basic element – although it is an essential key characteristic of human communication. One way to come up with a story is to think about how stories develop. They often start with some simple facts, but then some contrast, challenge or contradiction emerges. The contrast has to be solved by the ‘hero’ or the scientist. We all know that we will not stop reading a book if the storyline holds our attention; but I think I would stop reading a crime story if it just listed fact after fact, as sometimes is the case in scientific articles.
The workshop participants also practised effective science communication in small groups. They chose topics like ‘the danger of aerosols to health’, or ‘the impact of alternative energy sources on the environment’. After the group discussions, they presented their results to the audience, and received feedback from Beat Glogger on their storyline and way of creating suspense. This was an entertaining, illuminating, but also challenging task! The exercise also exhibited another interesting point – where to start and how to end a presentation (or a paper). If we presented the latest findings of Foehn flows in the Alps to a lay audience, we would have to start with an everyday experience. If the audience were meteorologists, we could start at a more advanced level. But we should never start at the highest possible level, because even other experts do not have the same background that we have about our own research topic. In fact, we should build a bridge from a more general perspective to our specific result. If we are able to make our very detailed point, it is worthwhile concluding the presentation at a broader level that a lay audience can comprehend i.e. we should tell them why our result is interesting to them.
There were many other topics discussed at the workshop! What is the emotional component of a sentence or text? What are strong verbs compared to weak verbs? How to start a story? What to do if contacted by a journalist? Many interesting thoughts that made it clear that science communication – at many levels – is an exciting task. The general feedback on the workshop was very positive. The participants liked the intuitive, but effective, approach presented by Beat Glogger – and we, as a small Meteorological Society, could enthuse our members on a topic often neglected.
by Michael Sprenger, President of the Swiss Meteorological Society (photo ©SGM)