What’s Your Story?

“What is it exactly that you do, again?”

If you work in the sciences, you’ve probably been asked that question before. When talking with colleagues within your field, you have the luxury of using technical terminology. But when speaking to researchers in different disciplines — and to the lay public, to say the least — we lose that common glossary.

We now must explain ourselves — and our work — with concise words that others can understand and relate to.

Science writers deal with this challenge all the time. They have to comprehend and convey a different scientific discipline with each new assignment, yet somehow find a way to introduce the work of each researcher using snappy yet meaningful statements — starting in the form of headlines.

Consider this headline about forest mortality researchers:

(Image copyright: Michael Clark/High Country News)

(Image copyright: Michael Clark/High Country News)

It reads:

To save the West’s forests, scientists first must learn how trees die

What a powerful combination of words and juxtaposition of ideas. Most people know that coroners investigate human cadavers to determine causes of death, so a “tree coroner” sounds like an expert who does the same for trees. And the irony of learning about death to save a thing is another conceptual jolt that sticks in your head. Just imagine this theme converted into a line for a cocktail party:

“I study how trees die,” said the ecologist. “To learn how we can save our forests. You could say I’m a tree coroner…”

A more easily understood — yet intriguingly elegant — alternative to, say, “I’m studying the climatic and hydrologic correlates of forest mortality…”

* * * * *

Another environment that cultivates clear, pithy science explanations is Twitter.

One good example of answering “what’s your story” using concise tweets is the Twitter hashtag #1tweetresearch, kicked off by astrophysicist Dr. Katie Mack (@AstroKatie) in July 2014. On Twitter, Mack challenged fellow researchers to tweet the elevator-pitch version of their research program — “like a one-tweet research proposal.”


You can see the news-headline mentality come through in some of the better tweets:

(“The Memory of Galaxies”… now that’s a headline.)

(Mack has curated more tweets here: https://storify.com/AstroKatie/one-tweet-research)


Be it a tweet or a headline, or other forms of concise prose, your ability to tell your story in quick, clear language and familiar contexts will translate far beyond a party icebreaker. This distillation of your research concept can be applied to other forms of science communication — as the prompt for a scientific illustration or graphic, or the driving theme for a film production, or the tagline to your lab webpage, or the mission statement of an outreach project — or the opening line of your research grant proposal.

So here’s your exercise:  Find a colleague outside your field and ask them their story — then explain what they do in the form of a headline or a tweet. 


The above notes on science communications are planning sketches for the opening activity at “Beyond the Written Word”, a workshop for advancing ecology communication through multimedia held at the Ecological Society of America’s 2014 Annual Meeting in Sacramento, California (WK 15), organized by Chris Creese, Holly Menninger, Bethann G. Merkle, and Clarisse Hart.

The headline-writing exercise is a staple of many communications training courses, but I will credit the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship opening orientation as my inspiration for using it as a workshop icebreaker.


Picturing a Poster for Phones

For many scientists today, working a research conference using smartphones has become second-nature. Whether it’s live-tweeting a talk, or taking photos of other people’s posters, smartphones have greatly enhanced the conference networking and learning experience.

It was the poster aspect that had me thinking recently. How can we make a better poster layout that would be more friendly to smartphone users — and quite frankly, wouldn’t be the usual boring snooze crammed with 12-point font text? Something that will stand out from the crowd?

You can see the beginnings of my experiment in this design I created for Kevin Lafferty, a P.I. with the U.S. Geological Survey and UC Santa Barbara:

WERC Poster Lafferty 201405 Megadata


The key addition is the “Project Snapshot” — this is actually where I’ve tucked all the technical abstract, the citation, the coauthors, the email addresses, and all the “usual” poster elements.

Essentially, I’ve written up your notes for you in this 9×12 inch space; the camera icon is a reminder that you literally can just take a snapshot of this box, and not have to write all this down.

WERC Poster Lafferty 201405 Megadata2


(Note: If you do a thick lamination on the poster, it may pose issues with light reflection — so watch out for that.)

You can play with the layout, colors, and fonts in this Adobe InDesign template I’ve provided, and I welcome others to improve upon this design and share their ideas!

What about the rest of the poster real estate? For that, I drew inspiration from webpages, newspapers, and other design realms:

younglandis conf poster layout


Content-wise, I wanted to reorganize and trim the traditional bins of Introduction-Background-Methods-Results-Conclusions that many of us learned for our first science fair project as children, and reinforced later in academic training.

Instead, I thought about that person wandering around a poster session, who already visited the posters they wanted to see, and is now just wandering and browsing poster after poster — how do I capture and leverage that person’s attention and time? I then reorganized the content into these bins:

  • Intro Box: This is the ultimate, condensed summation of your poster, like your 30-second elevator speech or the lede sentence in a news story — the super abstract. Tell me what you’re doing, and why it’s a big deal.
  • Key Concept: This is an adaption of the Background section. I might not be well-versed in your specific research field, so explain to me a core concept or research history that I need to understand first in order to appreciate your project.
  • “The Whale Tank”: This is where you show off your goods. Big, bold, and centered in the poster, this is The Main Event and showpiece you want everyone to see and say “Wow” — whether it’s your cool new methodology or new finding. Impress me with the big takeaway of your research and that Key Figure and/or gorgeous research photos. Make these visuals nice and big, to make that wandering browser stop in their tracks and stay to read your poster.
  • Next Steps: This is straight out of the traditional “future research directions” section. It’s also a nice space to solicit ideas for collaboration.

These new bins may seem oversimplified, but they are also the bare essence of information that we key in on when browsing poster sessions, and quite flexible in terms of desired content.

Design-wise, the content text font size is bumped up to 30 point. I recommend that you limit the poster to at most three fonts — a serif font for content text for ease of reading; a sans-serif font for titles and footers; and a narrow, sans-serif font for the Project Snapshot that lets you fit in more text, yet clean enough to read via a photo.

You’ll also note that each text box is set up in a 3:4 or 4:3 aspect ratio — the same as many smartphone cameras. This way, you can easily photograph complete sections of text — instead of trying to snap a photo of the entire poster, which usually ends up too blurry to read anyway. And if someone wants to download the poster PDF itself, the footer bar provides space for QR codes, URLs, and other access information.

A great poster will not only deliver the science, but also help the reader digest it. In today’s world, a great conference poster should capture a person’s attention, deliver the main takeaway, and compel that person to visit your lab website and read your papers — and more importantly, to contact you directly and learn about your research.


Thanks to Josh Witten and Allison Barner for prompting this write-up. More ideas from Witten here.

Context, Perspective, and The Other

I love writing tweets, headlines, and taglines. These short, concise bundles of language are meant to deliver a message straight to your brain stuff. Done properly, you’ll utter a laugh or gasp, or have clicked on a link before you even realized why.

But why you laughed or gasped at my words—or completely ignored them—depends entirely on your individual perspective and context.

Consider this pair of headlines I wrote in 2011 to promote a marine ecology sampling expedition to the Pacific Northwest:


“Biologists to Conduct Sea Otter Expedition from Forks, WA”




“Biologists Draw Blood in Forks, WA”


When I showed this pair of headlines to graduate researchers in a writing workshop, the first headline raised an eyebrow here or there—probably because many people find sea otters to be cute and adorable animals. Or maybe they were natives of Washington state.

But it was the second headline that drew the laughs. Why? Because the Twilight movies were all the rage at the time. Forks, a real town in Washington, was the setting for this popular series of fantasy novels and movies about vampire romances. And it was going to serve as the base camp for our researchers that week—there to collect blood samples from sea otters to study their exposure to pollution and stress.



My angst comes from all the new cultural contexts I’ve had to adapt to. #YOLF (Image Credit: ryanseacrest.com)


I was banking on the national, pop-culture popularity of Twilight to get more attention from a general audience for this story. I wanted to use the vampire headline for the national press release that would go out to reporters—but one official balked, so I ended up using the blander headline instead. But I rewrote the press release into a blogpost I could stick my old headline back on, and promote alongside the press release.

These contrasting styles continued into the lede of each piece. Compare this…

Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks this week, and sea otters will be their quarry on a three-week expedition. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium and other institutions are studying the health of local sea otters to assess the condition of Washington’s nearshore ecosystem.

…with this

Marine biologists are setting up camp in Forks, Washington, this week to capture some fanged predators. They are definitely cute and they have great hair, but their seafood-breath should cut short any romantic fantasies.

We’re talking about sea otters, of course.

Of course in 2014, we’ve pretty much forgotten about Twilight, and it has fallen out of context. Even when recognized, mentioning it risks seeming clichéd.

There were many other ways I could have written this headline, depending on the intended audience. For a legislator’s office, I might have led off with how the research benefits that district and is involving local universities. For audiences who despise sea otters (yes, they exist, with their own reasons which we need to consider), I wouldn’t have even mentioned the critters in my headline—perhaps instead highlighting the research goals of improving the health of marine economic resources. And even in 2011 the Twighlight reference carried a risk—I definitely would not have used it in a local community outreach strategy, due to tribal sensitivities regarding the film.


A toothy smile and hair you can't resist. Does not sparkle. Image courtesy of C.J. Casson/Seattle Aquarium.

Context, Perspective, and The Otter. (Image Credit: C.J. Casson/Seattle Aquarium)


When I’m communicating science, I try to think about the context and perspective of my target audience. This can be framed at different scales.

When communicating to a mass audience through news releases, blogposts, and tweets, we can take advantage of current events and pop culture that a large group of people would recognize, and juxtapose them into something unexpected:



Or we could simply tap into more primal sentiments:



Whether you’re referring to pop culture, current events, or cultural traditions, just make sure you do the research to match up the audience with the reference, so you’re not incorrectly using a reference (embarrassing), or using a reference with inappropriate connotations (more embarrassing).

When communicating to individuals or communities in memos, letters, stories, and conversation, identifying the context and perspective of your audience requires even more thought and intuition.

To build a contextual bridge between my message and my audience. I like to draw on two lessons I learned from my brief time in the newsroom:

1. Think Hyperlocally: People care about where they live, where they’re from, and places they like to go to. So, always emphasize where you conduct your research, or what implications your research has on a local area. Focus on the city/county/landmark scale—hence “hyperlocal” thinking.

2. Relate to the Other: People care about their family legacy, job security, personal freedoms and health. People are also sentimental about their own life stories—experiences which have shaped their perspectives and formed their contexts. So, force yourself to examine issues from someone else’s viewpoint. Learn why someone might feel threatened or passionate about a particular topic. You may not agree with their opinion, but learning how they arrived at their perspective will help you build that contextual bridge.

Outreach fairs are great training grounds to practice these tips—you have to think on your feet and tweak your message delivery to each person or family that walks by your booth. When addressing adults, I like to shoot out questions very early on like “where are you visiting us from” so I can use that context in my message delivery, and as an icebreaker to glean more contexts.

Family and friends—at least ones who don’t work in the same field as you—can offer good practice also. Communications trainers often talk about “the grandma test”, where if you can craft a message that an elderly friend can understand, then you’ve succeeded. You’ve found away to bridge differences in generations, upbringing, cultural norms, et cetera, to explain a concept.

News articles and advertising are the ultimate test beds to learn about context and perspective—except here, “the other” is yourself. You and I are targets of messaging experiments everyday, through the Web, television, email, signboards, and so on. So think about that headline you chose to click on, or the ad that made you laugh or made you think. Why did it work? How did it connect with your personal context and perspective?

Lastly, don’t forget the power of visuals and graphics. Don’t just explain things in words—use maps and photos to illustrate these contexts and to drive home a point.


How big one mole of salt would be. Image credit: Rhett Allain/WIRED

How big one mole of salt would be. (Image Credit: Rhett Allain/WIRED)

Buri Dubai tower compared to the altitude of Southern California marine layer and coastal haze. Image credit: Cindy O'Dell/The Register

The Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai compared to the altitude of Southern California marine layer and coastal haze. (Image Credit: Cindy O’Dell/Orange County Register)


The above notes on science communications were compiled for my talk at the UC Davis Extension course “Effective Communication: An Introduction to Sharing Technical and Scientific Information” on May 21, 2014. The course is led by Kandace Knudson. Some of the material was previously presented in “Communicating Science Through Context” in 2010.

Bonus Gag: Check out the wonderful tumblr that is “Discourse on the Otter”.

Bonus Chart: Via NPR Digital Services 


Bonus Link: Seven Overlooked Tips for Talking Science to Elected Officials: http://thebridge.agu.org/2014/05/21/elected-officials-human/ 

How to Describe Obscure Technical Measurements

At a workshop today on communicating science to government audiences, my colleague talked about the importance of avoiding technical measurements when talking to lay audiences.

That is, avoiding sentences like “this needle is 50 microns in diameter” or “this fossil whale is 20 meters in length”.

The measurement simply isn’t as amazing as you think it is, if your audience has no idea or no context of what that measurement means.

One tip I have on this is to use the semantic search engine Wolfram Alpha to translate measurements into more relatable scales.

Here is a screenshot of my query for “50 microns”:

Copyright Wolfram Alpha LLC. Source: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=50+microns

Copyright Wolfram Alpha LLC. Source: http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=50+microns

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Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of

Who ever says scientists are the only people prone to speak in dense, uninterrupted prose, do remind them that thinkers and pundits of all fields are equally guilty.

Consider this recent interview by Stephen Colbert with Matthew Guerrieri, a classical music critic and contributor to the Boston Globe.

Skip to the 1:45 mark:

Guerrieri admitted to being a little nervous ahead of the interview — though really, who wouldn’t be facing an interviewer like Colbert? And I don’t mean to criticize Guerrieri’s performance nor his expertise as an arts critic.

But I did smile as I watched Guerrieri’s nearly two-minute, mega-soundbite explaining the thrust of his new book, First Four Notes: Beethoven’s Fifth and the Human Imagination, and how the German Romantic movement embraced Beethoven and his Symphony No. 5 as the embodiment of their ethos.

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How Twitter Amplifies Your Reach: Example from the “School of Athens” Post.

At the science communications workshop held by the Delta Stewardship Council today in Sacramento, I had a chance to speak to postdocs and graduate students about how social media tools can benefit a research career. You can read my notes in my recent post, Social Media: A Virtual “School of Athens” for Researchers.

Afterwards, Dr. Lauren Hastings, deputy executive officer for the council, said it would be great to see a visualization of how social media tools like Twitter can amplify messages and reach.

So I tinkered a bit with some of the retweets that came as a result of the “School of Athens” blogpost, and created this snapshot of how the link traveled around the globe:



You can download the graphic as a JPG file or as a PDF file.

Basically, by tweeting the link of my blogpost, I was able to share my message with networks outside of my own. My link was shared by Bora Zivkovic, whose network is immense. And in turn, the link was shared by Twitter users in Greece, Germany, Belgium and throughout the United States.

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Social Media: A Virtual “School of Athens” for Researchers

"The School of Athens" by Raphael, 1511. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (Image via PDArt/Wikimedia Commons)

“The School of Athens” by Raphael, 1511. Apostolic Palace, Vatican City (Image via PDArt/Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been asked by the Delta Stewardship Council to speak briefly at their Delta Science Fellows workshop on January 23, 2013, on how social media has influenced my career in science. Here are my notes.

*     *     *     *     *

When I was a boy, I had this vision in my head of what college and academia would be like. And it was this painting — “The School of Athens” by the Renaissance master Raphael.

Which one is Stallone?

Which one is Stallone?

This fresco pretty much features “The Expendables” of classical philosophers and scientists. You’ve got Plato chatting with Aristotle down the middle. Socrates looks like he’s preaching some serious stuff to the upper left. And on the lower left, everyone’s looking over Pythagoras’ shoulder to copy, presumably, his math homework.

One grand hall. So many great minds. Everyone’s relaxed, familiar, and engaged in some deep conversation — or maybe gossip and friendly jests. You can imagine just strolling around a room like this, as if you were wading into a confluence of streams of great ideas and insights — picking up a tidbit here and an inspiration there; stopping to listen to something that caught your ear; or even speaking up and joining a particular conversation.

This is what the social media experience can be like for you in the research field.
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