Communicating Science through Conversation (and Cartoons)

The Medical Campus welcomed Mariette DiChristina, Dean of BU’s College of Communication, on Tuesday, Nov. 26, for an informative and visual Provost Workshop.

With 35 years of experience as a journalist, Dean DiChristina is among the nation’s most accomplished science journalists, editors and managers. She has been both editor-in-chief and senior vice president of Scientific American (2009-19) and executive vice president, editorial and publishing, magazines, of its parent company Springer Nature (2015-19), overseeing the magazine section of the journal Nature and related titles.

Through conversation (and a relevant cartoon on each slide in her deck), Dean DiChristina provided expert insight into what’s happening in the media ecosystem. The intensification of the Internet has turned news into a commodity. Reading behaviors have changed, shifting to digital platforms, but the new media ‘echo chamber’ is still reliant on old-fashioned reporting.

To explain this, she referenced American writer Stewart Brand, quoting a 1984 speech: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time.”

But there is hope! According to the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators 2018, Americans have high confidence in the scientific community; and this perception has endured over three decades, only second to confidence in the military. People agree that scientists work for the good of humanity, help solve problems and want to make life better for the average person.

“I know you all know this, but perhaps at no time have more of the critical policy questions of the day turned on science. Perhaps at no time have more people been spouting utter nonsense about science. Perhaps at no time have laypeople been consuming more science stories online. It’s our opportunity,” said Dean DiChristina.

She suggested the different ways the scientific community can bring their unique perspective on a variety of platforms—essentially, anywhere they feel comfortable participating:

  • Blogs, videos and podcasts
  • Social media, illustrations and cartoons
  • Talks to the public and classroom visits/assemblies
  • Letters to the editor and op-eds
  • Personal and institutional lab websites, articles in consumer publications and newsletters
  • And of course, interviews with journalists

Dean DiChristina emphasized the importance of good storytelling to reach an audience because “people can stop reading at any time,” so she suggested thinking of their needs, not yours:

  • Answer the “so what?” question
  • Explain in ways audience can understand, avoid jargon
  • Give anecdotes, narrative details, analogies
  • Tell why it’s important to know now (timely)
  • Include pictures, good explanatory art, video, audio, etc.

When you want to share your science with the world, stop for a second. Dean DiChristina broke it down into five easy steps:

  1. Pick your audience: Tailor your messages for who you’re going to be communicating with.
  2. Pick your messages: What do you need to get across?
  3. Pick your medium: Try to incorporate your research wherever you are.
  4. Speak their language: Invite people in and tell a story. Many people aren’t necessarily convinced by facts alone, but do appreciate a story that personifies your point.
  5. Make connections for readers: Explain why science matters to them.

“A way scientists can help is to explain not just what you know, but how you know it. Stop trying to make a presentation — just tell us your story,” she said.


Helpful Resources

BU’s Strategic Communications Series

The Conversation pitch form

Scientific American submission instructions

Massive Science memberships

American Scientist submission instructions