Professor Ian Ritchie used to stop in the middle of his chemistry lectures and tell a joke. He didn’t try to hide it nor to fit it in with the subject matter of the lecture; he simply stopped talking at the half way mark, clapped his hands, said ‘joke time’ and proceeded to tell a joke. I don’t remember any of them (it was 30 years ago!) but I remember that he did it – every lecture.
This year, I have had cause to recall professor Ritchie as I was writing a story about the Ritchie scholarship for ChemCentre and more recently about ChemCentre’s annual staff awards. I came across some background on the late Ian Ritchie, written by former colleagues, and was struck by a sentence that read: his lectures shone out from all the rest as interesting, challenging, and, particularly, fun!
It made me smile; reminding me of what a fabulous lecturer Professor Ritchie was. I realised that he had inadvertently given me some very valuable lessons in science communication that have stood me well in the years since.
Firstly, he had shown that humour can work, even with serious subjects, if done in the right way and timed well.
Secondly, I recalled a lecture professor Ritchie gave in a course on chemistry in the life sciences. He showed us a picture of a new-born baby and told us that birth was the culmination of the most amazing series of chemical reactions. It was a different perspective to anything I’d ever heard and certainly made me think. I suppose it made me see the real relevance of chemistry to the life sciences which, given that I was a biology major, was a very important thing for me to realise early on in my university career. The long-term lesson for me in science communication from that experience was the importance of giving a subject direct relevance to the intended audience.
There were of course also lessons in there about the value of telling a story with pictures. And, of course, I learnt these things from him by his demonstration of good practice – by his walking the walk, rather than just talking the talk. RIP Ian Ritchie.
When writing about scientific research for a non-scientific audience, you need to identify the story you want to tell. Scientific papers go into all sorts of details about how a study was done and why it was done that way and previous studies done in the same or similar ways, but when you’re writing for a general audience, that detail isn’t usually necessary. Rather than telling the story of how the research was done, tell the story of what the research discovered. Drill down into the research and find the ‘aha’ moment. That’s your story.
Now that you know the essence of your story, think about your audience – what do they most want to know about this research? You won’t be able to answer this question perfectly, but take a guess. Imagine someone who may be reading your story and think about what they may already know and what they may want to know.
Say for example you are writing about gastric ulcers in horses for an equestrian magazine and you have the results of a series of experiments on the topic at your disposal. You could summarise all the research papers and call than an article, but it’s unlikely to be read by many of the magazine readers. It’s not going to be a story. So, find the story – what does the research actually say? What conclusions does it reach? Does it make recommendations? If so, what are they? Maybe it says that adding a particular product to horses’ feed reduces the chance of gastric ulcers. Maybe it recommends a particular drug treatment.
Next, think about your readers – if it’s an equestrian magazine, chances are the audience is interested in horses and probably has one or more and maybe they’re having a problem with their horse or horses having ulcers, which is why your article caught their attention (because you called it something that told them what to expect from the article, didn’t you?). So now you have a profile of your reader – you know they are interested in the content (they have horses), you know they have experience of dealing with gastric ulcers (that’s why your article caught their attention), and you know they want a solution to curing the gastric ulcers (because you’ve assumed they are interested in their horses’ welfare). So now, tell them what was discovered and how it can help them. That’s the story they want to read. Keep that in mind when you are writing about scientific research.
Telling a science story so it can be understood by non-scientists is not about dumbing it down. It may involve simplifying it, but don’t think of it as dumbing down. Simplifying it may mean taking out the boring bits – the almost endless repetitions, the detailed set-ups, the vast quantity of results – these are the bits that belong in the scientific literature, not in a community forum or a publicity brochure. (Sometimes you will want to say that you have conducted X repetitions over Y years; that’s about building your credibility and assuring people you know what you are talking about.) Simplifying may also mean changing some of the words you use – cutting out jargon for example. But avoid thinking of these things as dumbing down; instead, think of it as building bridges.
Telling a story in science is about saying what you know and hanging that on the things your audience already knows. So you need to begin with an understanding of what your audience, or more accurately your reader, knows. This means you need to answer some basic questions about them – who are they? What do they do? Why do they want to know about this? What might they already know?
You also need to be clear about what it is you want to tell them – what is your story? What is it that you know that you want your readers to know?
Your task then is to build a bridge between these two positions. You then take your reader by the hand and lead them across it. Of course, if you build the bridge well enough, they’ll be able to walk across unassisted, because every step of the way will be clear and logical. That’s your aim. Because when it comes down to it, you won’t be there to hold their hand.Your story has to stand on its own.
Last week I shared an article about foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs) on the Write Course Facebook page. The article took the (American) Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention to task over the way it had approached the issue and presented what I read as a well-written article. I shared it to highlight how communicating science can go awry when the tone and pitch of the writing misses the target audience: in this case the CDC’s article was intended to highlight an important issue but missed the mark to some extent because of the way it was written. I concede that there could well have been many other readers who read the CRC’s article and weren’t offended.
When I posted the article, I introduced it by saying: “Interesting, well-written article. It clarifies the issue of foetal alcohol syndrome but also highlights the importance of clearly communicating science. If the messaging is wrong, the important messages can so easily be lost.”
My Facebook post received the comment: “Yeah but the irony is she lost me in the first sentence with ‘myself’.” (Thanks Jean.) It’s a good point.
The Forbes article begins with: “Feminists–including myself–have been in an uproar this week over the tone-deaf and paternalistic decree from the CDC that women of childbearing age shouldn’t drink alcohol if they’re not on birth control.”
Leaving aside the content of the sentence and focusing on the use of the word ‘myself’, Jean’s right. It’s not correct to use ‘myself’ in this context. It should be ‘me’.
Myself is a reflexive pronoun, which means it is used to refer to something ‘I’ did in the past: “I did it myself.” It is not a substitute for ‘me’ or ‘my’: “It is my work.” “Give it to me.” Not: “Give it to myself.” And not “Give it to my.” (Even if you put on a Kath and Kim accent!)
Sometimes, ‘myself’ gets used for emphasis: “But I, myself, don’t like this usage.” I think it is difficult not to sound pompous saying ‘I, myself’ and I like writing that says what it means and means what it says.