Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A grounded talk on climate

Here's a great example of communicating science from the TED Global conference. Atmospheric chemist Rachel Pike uses her brief talk to describe the size and scope of the research behind climate change, a daunting prospect for many scientists seeking to help the public understand their work. Here's what she does well that you may be able to copy:

  • She starts with the familiar: Headlines: Right up front, Pike shows headlines about climate change and smog research results, and makes it clear that she's going to show us what goes into the research behind those stories.
  • She adds up the effort: Instead of shying away from describing the process, Pike dives into it and measures it for us, in numbers of researchers, numbers of research papers, the size of the supercomputers that do the modeling, and more. Then, later in the talk, she adds those numbers up again to show how much research goes into a major policy report--how many pieces of research, how many reviewers, and so on. The underlying message: Climate research is deliberate and thorough.
  • She grounds high-flying research in places: Pike includes a field research effort to collect data about a single molecule, showing pictures of the location from the sky and from the ground, the plane used to make the measurements (inside and out) and the equipment, and talks about the people who make the measurements and what they have to go through in the field. Those concrete details make her points stick, visually and verbally.
  • She uses analogy to translate the technical: At key points in her talk, Pike uses analogies to make clear the scale and size of what she's studying or how the process works. Listen for these -- she uses them judiciously, an important factor in making them work effectively.

If you're an academic scientist looking to improve your public communication skills, check out the Communicating Science workshops I facilitate for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science Foundation. Workshops are coming up in February, March and April of 2010. I'm also happy to conduct a workshop customized to meet the needs of your team, scientists or not. Contact me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

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