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:


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: 


Peter Campbell, Public Information Officer

Peter Campbell, Public Information Officer. Image Credit: AMC/Lionsgate

Well, I never thought I’d be quoting Pete Campbell on anything, let alone in a panel on science communications.

I am, of course, referring to one Peter Campbell, the whiny rat of a character on the television show Mad Men on AMC, played by actor Vincent Kartheiser. Pete is the smarmy, hotshot account executive of the show’s fictional advertising agency, and to be fair, the character is growing (painfully).

In the episode “At the Codfish Ball” the other week, Pete found himself having to explain his job to a doubting academic. The exchange*, at a black tie dinner, went like this:

Pete:  “… so I manage those accounts.”

Dr. Calvet: “But I don’t understand. What do you do everyday.”

Pete: “Well what do you do? You’re a scholar and an intellectual, right?”

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Writing a Press Release: Death by Six-Shooter

Hit’em hard.

I was helping one of my researchers today to edit a press release draft that he had written. When I was writing out the standard formula for a press release in an email explanation, I kept wanting to gesticulate and say that a good press release should deliver the facts quickly and succinctly — essentially six quick bullet points that form a story. Then, a particular idea suddenly struck me:

(Please let me know if this already has been used/suggested by someone else… I plead innocence through shared creativity! I also plead guilty to muddled and morbid analogies/examples, if so judged…)

Death by Six-Shooter:  A press release should knock your reader over like six quick shots that deliver the facts and importance of your story. Humor the following example:

  1. The lede:  What’s the news?  I got shot! 
  2. The nutgraph:  Where/when/tell me more!  I got shot in the gut when I was in line to buy a caramel decaf mocha at the 15th and J Starbucks!
  3. The pithy quote:  The news and its importance, in your own words:  “It really hurts, and this has significant implications for my lifespan.”
  4. The detailed description:  Paint me a picture of the story:  There’s now blood everywhere and that might be the duodenum peeking out. No one got a look at the shooter, who was last seen with a venti Americano before fleeing the scene.
  5. The background and signficance:  Here’s what else you need to know: I’ve always hypothesized that I’d bite it from a coronary from eating too much KFC. Most people have a 0.01 percent chance of dying from a gunshot at Starbucks versus a 0.09 percent chance from KFC cardiac episodes. But surprisingly, I got shot instead — making this a most unusual finding.
  6. The last word:  A pithy statement/quote to sum it up, once more, with feeling:  “Getting shot was unexpected and a hell of a way to go. But this gives us more clues as to whether getting shot while ordering coffee is a new trend for kicking the bucket.”

Feel free to improve upon this… post your versions in the comments!