“Tell your stories,” scientists urged at ACS

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The heads of three of the world’s largest chemistry organizations came together Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C., to encourage better communication about science.

Allison Campbell, president of ACS and associate director of the Earth and Biological Systems Directorate, led the presidential symposium. She was joined by Sir John Holman, president of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and Thisbe K. Lindhorst, president of the German Chemical Society.

Campbell opened the meeting by telling the audience of 200 scientists, communicators and others that “the importance of telling our stories to the general public cannot be overestimated. We must learn how to tell our science stories in ways that resonate with the people we are talking to.”

A highlight of the session was an address by Thomas Hager of the University of Oregon, recipient of this year’s ACS James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public. Hager reminded the audience of the gulf between scientists and the public: 55 percent of people do not know the sun is a star, 85 percent don’t know what a molecule is, and that more than half question whether the Big Bang really occurred.

Hager’s “secrets of science communication” include:

  • Know and appreciate your audience and tailor your presentation to that audience. What do you want to achieve from the interaction?
  • Convey enthusiasm, curiosity, and wonder.
  • Communicate emotionally as well as accurately.
  • Explain “how” and “why,” not just “what.”
  • Tie the science to the audience’s real-life experiences and concerns.
  • Tell your stories.
  • Keep the science brief and simple.

Another high point was an illustration of the importance of voice and inflection, with an ACS official first reading a portion of the fairy tale, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in a monotone, then reading the same passage with inflection that brought the story to life. Scientists, speaker Nick Milanovich asserted, would do well to keep the contrast in mind.

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