My first guest blog, “Being BOLD and Taking Responsibility” at the LFIA’s Adelaide forum

I recently attended an Adelaide based forum on “Building Nutrition”, held by the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA). It was fascinating to say the least. Afterwards I was contacted and asked if I was interested in writing a guest blog on the forum experience – and of course said “Yes!”

Here’s how it starts…

“There are times when you hear about real people taking small steady steps toward achieving their goals and making changes. You listen with a sense of satisfaction, the changes might not be huge but at least they’re happening. This is how most change comes about, “green” or not.

Then there are times when this slowness of pace gets to you a little… You begin to hanker for some mountainous shift in the ways things work, some outrageous plan or project or people just getting on with things – regardless of apparent restrictions. For me, these are the moments that make all the small steps and the consistent effort worthwhile. And it doesn’t have to be something I’m personally involved in, I’ll accept inspiration from anywhere!

This is where the latest Adelaide Forum from the Living Future Institute of Australia (LFIA) comes into the story…”

Follow the link to read more on the LFIA website: https://living-future.org.au/blog/

 

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Keeping Data Personal: Big scopes, little people

Every now and again I wonder about whether big data can still be personal. This generally occurs after I get a pop-up on my computer or an up-date on my phone which asks if they can track and use my background data.

But it does get me thinking – I hear a lot about us being in the era of “big data”, with mass data collection all around. Some of this is used to categorise us according to our likes and shopping desires. Some is used to actually better the systems and interfaces we work with.

But I know from my own data collection experiences how easy it is (once everyone’s answers are turned into numbers and categories), to lose sight of what those answers really mean in context to each person, and in turn what this means for your research.

But there are people out there making huge efforts to keep our interfaces, data collection and communications not just individual but personal too. I only recently watched a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin from 2011 called, “Visualizing ourselves… with crowd-sourced data”.

Aaron spoke about a number of very cool projects which he’s been a part of over the years:

  • In one project he mapped the flight patterns of North America as a time-lapse revealing the patterns of day/night, altitudes and flight types. It looks like skeins of thread weaving the US together.
  • Another project called the “Bicycle built for 2,000” involved getting a couple of thousand people to each contribute a recording of themselves singing less than 1 second of a tune – without telling them why. It was then put together as the “Bicycle Built for 2” song online . Hearing all these people contribute to such a large project, singing high, low, really well, or terribly is incredible! Yes, in the end they do sound like a slightly out of tune pionola but it is so touching and funny and real.

Another project Aaron was involved in is The Johnny Cash Project, where a clip of his last studio song recording “Ain’t No Grave” was put online and transformed into global art. People were given a single image (from a series of old Johnny Cash footage) and a custom online drawing tool so they could draw their version of that image. All these thousands of drawings were then put together as the music video for Johnny Cash’s song. As each one of these drawings flicker by when you watch the clip, you get such a personal sense of what Johnny Cash and his songs meant for people.

Aaron Koblin ended his talk with saying how, “the interface can be a powerful narrative device” which he believes we can use to help us all, “maintain the humanity of data collected”.

I really appreciated his whole perspective about making the process of data collection, analysis and display be something that we craft and meld to work for us, rather then blindly persisting with our slightly-difficult-to-interact-with and not-always-intuitive-to-use programs, interfaces and visualisations.

He made me feel quite hopeful. And much more determined to spend the extra time and effort with my research to find clear and creative ways to communicate the findings and keep a better sense of the people behind the data.

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

Because science is based upon the process of critical evaluation, pointing out flaws and faults in arguments and ideas, can become second nature. But this sometimes aggressive process can be taken as un-neccessarily critical, arrogant and just plain mean when seen by the general public. Olson warns scientists to be careful of “rising above” (acting superior, arrogant or smarter-than) when communicating with people from a non-scientific background.

From previous chapters we already know there’s substance (what you say) and there’s style (the way you say it). Now would be nice to think that the substance of an idea, process or project, is what people pay attention to. Yet as discussed by both Randy Olson and Richard Lanham, when it comes to large public venues with broad audiences (or any time when the amount of information being communicated reaches excessive levels) then people’s minds make a shift from substance to style.

It becomes easier to evaluate the presenter, then to evaluate the information they’re sharing.

So how does Olson recommend you can become more likeable?

  1. First impressions count. People can form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Try to appear friendly, calm and organised (neat).
  2. Even if someone disagrees with something you say, don’t rise above. Stay grounded, calm and try to understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be dismissive.
  3. Shift from using only your brain to using humour, emotion and passion. If you can work “fun” in there too, then you’re golden.

Does being likeable mean you cannot use critical thinking? No, not at all. It means you can use both positivity (a form of spontaneity or creativity) and THEN negativity (critical thinking).

Options for interviews:

One opportunity for using both positivity and negativity which Olson gives is during an interview. When asked a question, he says you can partition your answers, for example by beginning with a range of creative possibilities and then imposing some discipline by moving on to, “But a lot of evidence points to the most logical explanation of ….”. This shifting back and forth provides your interview with much more interest than simply sticking to the pure logical results the entire time.

My own recent attempts at likability

By launching my Edible Gardens project, I have been doing most of the promotion myself. Often I have only a few minutes to get explain my project and make a good impression. So thank goodness for all my hospitality experience with waitressing, bartending etc. I am more than comfortable introducing myself, smiling and chatting to new people.

But it’s not just my hospitality experience making the difference – I am working hard at being likeable.

Lots of smiling, nodding when people talk, taking in their perspectives and ideas or concerns, learning a bit about their circumstances to see whether or not my project is right for them – as much as learning whether they are right for my project.

By making a social effort and focussing on the mutual benefits, I am getting through to most of the people I meet, and have had many project volunteers.


Want to read all the brilliant stories and details of, “Don’t be such a scientist” for yourself? You can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Crusaders of Science

A recent article by Richard P Grant on why scientists are loosing the communication fight, really struck a chord with me.

Richard comes across as actually saddened by the way in which many scientists attempt to communicate with the public. He points out that most of the people who actively argue and disagree with science are just people. They’re people who want their concerns, fears and needs listened to and taken into account. And instead of doing this, we scientists have the tendency to fight the good fight and defend science at all costs.

This article certainly made me wonder – is the habit of defence so ingrained in all scientists that it’s actually eroding our ability to communicate?

Now I don’t know any scientists who habitually browbeat people into accepting their point of view. However, there is an element of defence in everything scientists do. We are taught to defend our research to other scientists. We defend the value of our research to funders, companies and governments. And then we go right on and defend our research to the public, even though perhaps, this is one group of people with which we should instead be conversing, inviting in and offering the chance to engage in what we do.

But what about frustration?

I feel frustrated when I overhear someone’s conversation about “the myth of climate change”. I feel frustrated when my partner or someone in my family hears the debate of a science skeptic on the radio or tv and says, “Oh that’s a good point”. As someone who has studied long and hard to obtain environmental science knowledge, it can be really hard  when other people don’t automatically understand. But to be fair, not having that knowledge isn’t their fault. Everyone has different knowledge and has mastered different skills.

Maybe my frustration could be more useful as a warning that my defensive tipping point  is fast approaching. Because as romantic as it may sound to be a crusader for science, our defensive fervour could be getting in the way of true communication. I for one am going to try and listen a little more and defend a little less.


To read the full article by Richard P Grant, click here.

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 3

Here we cover the third instalment of Dr. Randy Olson‘s book which gets a little deeper into the “arouse and fulfil” tactic of getting people interested in the point you’re trying to make. And although that simple two-step process can work just fine, one way to mix it up is via storytelling…

Part 3: Don’t be such a poor storyteller

By now you may have noticed… many scientists aren’t brilliant storytellers. They can be passionate and big picture oriented, but also long-winded, detail obsessed or even dull. In Hollywood, people study for years to learn how to tell a good story. Scientists study and train for the complete opposite – to always constructively review whatever they are told, and to keep an eye out for any inaccurate details. But to get your information across to a non-academic audience… you have to be able to tell a good story

You begin with your raw material. For scientists this is your data, results, interviews, conclusions or realisations (admit it – there’s a lot). It may be in a jumble, or you may have it in the standard scientific structure: introduction, methods, results, discussion and conclusion. Although that structure is perfect for the scientific world, it isn’t great for anyone else.

While working on his film, “Flock of Dodos”, Olson figured out that to go forwards with all of his raw material – he would have to go back to one of the simplest stories there is: there’s a man, a journey, a damsel, a dragon and a larger evil in the land. Then all of his raw material suddenly worked together like magic.

The trouble is, the simplicity of a good story is both its greatest strength in engaging people, but is also the biggest sticking point for those who cannot (or will not) suspend disbelief, and believe in the story they’re told.

Olson tells of his trouble when showing some of his films to scientists, how they simply could not stop themselves from constantly questioning what was occurring – “Could that really happen?” or, “I don’t think that detail is correct”. Olson goes so far as to call them the “designated drivers” of the storytelling audience, while everyone else sits there drinking in the wonder of the story.

I find this habit of constantly looking for flaws in everything a little inflexible. Yes, stories can be simple and tend to follow patterns we already know. But they’re not just for children. Most of us became scientists because we never quite lost our childlike fascination with the world. Scientific research begins with a simple curiosity that drives us to ask, “Why…?”. So why on earth can’t we accept the power and necessity of a good story sometimes?

The book then shifts to the challenge of Accuracy vs. Boredom. Scientists care most about how accurate something is. Almost everyone else cares slightly more about whether they’re bored or not. Olson goes so far as to call this, “The fundamental dilemma facing the world of science today”.

One way to overcome boredom is by introducing  a source of tension or conflict. Something to think around or overcome. By denying any challenges made to science, scientists are missing out on a potential opportunity where they could fight the source of conflict and triumph!

Olson winds up this chapter by unreservedly championing the fact that,

“Being concise” is not the same as “dumbing down”.

Yes, you will have to work harder to get down to the relatable true essence of what your research is about. But surely you will become more confident and comfortable in your own understanding, and your ability to share what you do. So see if you can’t weave a little storyline through your work the next time you have to talk to those outside the academic sphere.


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Happy Reading!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a scientist” Part 2

Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:

Part 2: Don’t be so literal minded

Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.

In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.

One place to start is by coming up with an interesting title for your paper / report / presentation / ‘call to action’/ project. It’s time to let go of being so literal. Olson states that the best titles are a mixture of, “elusive enough but familiar enough”. By this he means be elusive enough to be slightly mysterious, but familiar enough that people don’t instantly switch off because it’s too alien.

We are then introduced to the idea of “Arouse and Fulfil”, also known as “Motivate then Educate”.

This is about getting people intrigued and wanting to know more, before you give them the logic and data. Olson talks about how scientists can get stuck in “Fulfil and Fulfil” habits, or just educating without bothering to do any motivating. In contrast, Hollywood can get caught up doing too much motivating and then never moving on the educating. All style and no substance.But the movie industry does do one thing right – they don’t assume that their work (a movie) will just sell itself. They have huge advertising budgets and promote their work months ahead of release.

Now if scientists aren’t so great at the motivating side of things, what can they use to help them out? The answer according to Olson… is ART. Art is evocative. It stirs people, motivates people and gets them asking questions. And once people are asking questions, then we can cue the scientist to answer them.

Okay, so art can be a powerful visual medium. But what does this mean for scientists?

It means that you can complement your rigorous scientific work, with evocative visuals to help motivate and engage your audience. Any images in your presentations, or images that are part of promoting your work are incredibly important. Below is a small example of the same  powerpoint slide with and without any images. Which do you feel is more engaging?

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Even when teaching a lecture, visuals can be used to help “motivate” the students to want to know more. Olson describes having to teach students about the 35 major groups of vertebrates in biology – some of which are really cool… and some of which are just lots of worm types. You could spend an equal amount of time on each group, describing them. Or you could start with a short film which aims to entertain and not to educate. It would cover all the cool aspects of the different biological groups and get the students enthused to know more. Then you can hit them with all the necessary details and differences.

So for mass communication, keep in mind motivating and then educating. It can be used as a two part process, or as Olson’s next chapter expands… you can use it in a whole other way!


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 1

Introducing Dr. Randy Olson, a marine biologist who left the world of academia to find out what Hollywood could teach him. He became a writer/director and couldn’t help but see how all his new skills could be applied to science communication.

His book, “Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in the age of style” is one of my absolute favourites. It’s a curious combination of scientific convincing and acting class insights. This short book is split into five parts, each of which I will cover in a post.

Part 1: Don’t Be So Cerebral

The first thing Randy Olson introduces us to (besides some crazy snippets of his old acting teacher screaming at him!), is the idea of the four organs of mass communication… the head, the heart, the gut, and the lower organs.

Olson says that people tend to have different driving forces, different places that they’re coming from most of the time. The head thinkers are quite logical. They like thinking things through and getting things to make sense. Not surprisingly, most academics fit in here, but very few other people do. Attempting to communicate from this perspective to a global audience reaches the least amount of people.

Next we have the heart. Heart thinkers are the passionate, empathetic types. Olson talks about actors and religion fitting here. To me this is where most charities, disaster appeals and petitions speak from. Heart thinkers form a larger group than the Head thinkers, but still don’t include everyone.

Then comes the gut. Olson says that in the gut lies instinct and humour. It’s full of impulses, and also contradiction. When you feel something but can’t explain why, that’s when you’re listening to your gut. Reaching out to people from this perspective will allow you to influence most everyone out there.

And finally the lower organs. Down here there’s no logic, but it is powerful nonetheless. I can’t help but feel that the majority of advertising and movies lives here, and as the old adage says, “Sex sells”. From here you can reach pretty much everyone, and some people won’t pay any attention to anything else.

So why is this at all important for science communication?

Because if you as a scientist want to communicate, explain, persuade or get through to anyone who isn’t a head thinker – you need to be able to speak the language. Or at the very least, be able to take the different perspectives into account. Having to tell others about your research is a non-negotiable part of being a scientist. You will always have to do so, so why not try to get more comfortable with doing it well?

As Olson says – there’s two parts to communicating, the substance of what you’re saying, and then the style of how you say it. You’re more effective, interesting and engaging when you use both.


If you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. And no – I’m not getting anything to tell you. I just think it’s a brilliant read. Enjoy!

Why online presence is important for all scientists: The League of Remarkable Women in Science, interview Dr Rachael Dunlop

What a brilliant interview with Dr Rachael Dunlop – I love the idea of starting by learning to communicate effectively and THEN getting into science. Possible a harder way of doing things but she has made it a success.

Recently I spoke with my father Jeremy Pollard about the growing need for scientists to have an online presence. Without being able to communicate your research effectively to people – how will they understand the value? And without examples of your ability to communicate effectively and present in a concise, clear and interesting way, how will anyone – a company, a workshop, or even a conference committee, know you’re any good?

So what can you do? Practice presenting all the time, in front or your mirror, your friends, your family. And when you do present professionally – ask someone to record it. Even with an iphone (just remember to keep it framed on you and keep it STILL). Or if your presentation is filmed by whoever is running the event, ask for a copy. Watch them. Learn from them and upload the good ones to your online profile e.g. LinkedIn.

Don’t have an online professional profile? Then this might be the time to start – LinkedIn is a great simple way to showcase your experience, your skills, even your best work. The best part is that when you connect with those you know on LinkedIn, you can get them to vouch for your skills AND even write recommendations of you. Keep it concise, honest and up-to-date.

Feature Communicator: Alan Alda

This March Alan Alda was interviewed by Will Grant and Rob Lamberts from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Alan is not a scientist, instead he is simply fascinated by talking to, and questioning all kinds of scientists.

Follow this link to listen to or read the whole interview transcript:
http://theconversation.com/alan-alda-on-the-art-of-science-communication-i-want-to-tell-you-a-story-55769

During this interview Alan talks about the power of curiosity – the drive to ask and find out “why?”, and yet he insists that curiosity combined with ignorance is even stronger!

During his life Alan has had the opportunity to interview many, many scientists. Some of these he did without a list of questions, but more as an informal curious conversation. He said that doing so brought out much more of the individual scientist’s personality than usually shown. And he spoke of wishing that scientists could get into that conversational tone all by themselves, without an interviewer to help them.

Alan is a vocal advocator for teaching communication skills to science students as a core part of their university education.

Alan also spoke of the need to not dumb down the science being communicated but to instead to focus on clarity and vividness. He defined being vivid as, “to show how it affects our daily lives, what the stories are that led to these discoveries.”

Some scientists may ask what good communicating their research to the public actually does for them. According to Alan, the scientists who undertook training at the Centre for Communicating Science found that working to refine their research message resulted in  them becoming much more focussed and clear about what they were doing and why.

This idea that re-working, re-explaining and re-focusing on the purpose and value of your science can actually lead to better science, is amazing. By attempting to communicate your message to a variety of people, journalists, community groups or organisations you are constantly re-afirming and checking how you describe and explain your work. This sort of reflection can be a powerful process for clearer, more vivid science.