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”

 

and

 

“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.

 

Edward-Cullen-Sparkle

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 

9-types_11x8

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

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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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Using Blogs to Enrich Your Scientific Career

On Monday, February 13, 2012, I will once again have the pleasure of visiting the University of California-Davis graduate student seminar, “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Communication Strategies”. Here are my notes for the session.

Updated 2/13/2012.

Why Communicate Science?

  1. Because it’s fun.
  2. Because it’s fun when your parents actually understand what the heck you do/want to do for a living.
  3. My take: Publishing your findings is one thing, but it’s just as important to clearly and effectively convey the significance of your research to your dean, a reporter, a senator or a stranger at a party. Simply put, the more people who know the implications of your research, the more opportunities may come for collaboration, funding, influencing public policy and improving societal awareness of science. (https://younglandis.wordpress.com/2010/10/15/communicating-science-through-context)

Why Learn How to Use Blogs

Communicate your research to the public

Interact with others in your academic field

Organize and showcase your research

Fundraise for your research

Venture into Science Communications

THE Conference About Science Blogging

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Communicating Science Through Context

On Wednesday, I had the generous invitation to visit a University of California-Davis graduate student seminar, “Translating Research Beyond Academia: Communication Strategies”.

Professors Knudson and Gutstein graciously gave me the better part of an hour to discuss with students the communication lessons that I’ve found useful in my career so far. Here’s an adapted excerpt from my handout:

Why Communicate Science to the Lay Public?

Publishing your findings is one thing, but it’s just as important to clearly and effectively convey the significance of your research to your dean, a reporter, a senator or a stranger at a party. Simply put, the more people who know the implications of your research, the more opportunities may come for collaboration, funding, influencing public policy and improving societal awareness of science.

“Provide the Implications of Research”

The sixth bullet point in Liz Buckley’s piece (Ed. note: Buckley’s piece was the assigned reading from the instructors: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/ieam.79) is a crucial one to effectively communicating science. But it’s not that journalists don’t want to report science for science’s sake — journalists prefer to report news that they think will matter to their immediate audience. This is both a public service decision and a business decision. Thus, if a journalist can’t see why his/her audience might care about your research, he/she will likely not report on it.

So you must build a contextual bridge between your work and our society. Take up these two mantras:

  1. Think Hyperlocally:  People care about where they live and places they like to go. So always emphasize where you conduct your research, or what implications your research has on a local area. But focus on the city/county/landmark scale — hence “hyperlocal” thinking. (Addendum 10/17: Or, when speaking with a reporter for a particular city/market, use a locale from that city as a context for explaining your research. Such as, “For example, everyone living in the XXXXX borough would be in danger of flooding according to this new model.”)
  2. Relate to the Other:  People care about their family legacy, job security, personal freedoms and health. So force yourself to examine societal issues from someone else’s viewpoint. Learn why someone might feel threatened or passionate about a particular topic (e.g. climate change, fisheries quotas, new medical therapies). You may not agree with their opinion, but learning how they arrived at their perspective will help you build that contextual bridge.

Ideas and Tips for Improving Science Communications Skills

  • Learn to write a 1-page briefing memo (single sheet, front-side only)
  • Get to know the public information officer (PIO) at your college/org and be helpful to them
  • Get exposed to social media, especially Twitter, Facebook and blogging tools
  • Read newspapers and local newsletters
  • Step back and examine how and where you get your news everyday
  • Think about why you like your favorite news website/magazine/paper/TV show
  • Ask a parent or non-scientist friend how they find out about science news
  • Talk with people from different walks of life/generations/disciplines
  • Practice. Write and talk about your interests as often as possible!

Electrofishing in Wine Country

Rushing through the open van door, the morning air was numbingly cold.

At least it was to this transplanted South Floridian, as none of my fellow students seem to be shivering as much. Nevertheless, all of us are wearing shorts, for soon we would be encased in the damp warmth of our neoprene chest-high waders and thick, almost armored wading boots.  More importantly, later in the day, the northern California sun will have turned this snug, warming suit into an imprisoning cage of suffocating heat.

It was wise to wear the minimum under these blessed and cursed waders.  But the synthetic rubber that forms these waterproof overalls also provides insulation from an element that is most important to our task:  electricity.

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