This is a guest post from one of our judges for the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition
What you say in a piece of science communication matters. Get the facts wrong, and the communication fails. Focus on an obscure technicality and omit to say why it is relevant, and the reader will stop. The communication fails again. But what to say is just one small part of the communicator’s task. How to say it is just as important. A good science communicator needs to think about form as well as content.
Among other things, that means thinking about the precise words you use, not just in terms of their clarity but also for the overtones they carry. For instance, using militaristic metaphors – fighting, killing, waging war and so on – to talk about a natural process might help explain certain features of the process but it might also make it harder to introduce those aspects of the system that interact in a cooperative manner. Or calling the Higgs boson the ‘God particle’ might be seen as threatening religion when that is not your intention. And it’s not just the words you use that need careful thought. Even trivial things like inserting a paragraph break or replacing a semi-colon with a full stop can make a difference to how well your piece flows.
Paying close attention to form also means thinking about how to craft a story out of the topic you have chosen. Who are the main characters? How will you describe them? What are the key events that drive the story forward? The main characters will not necessarily be the most prominent scientists involved – they may not be scientists at all – and the key events of the story are likely to be different from the key points in an explanation of the science.
In audio and video, there are additional aspects of form to consider. For instance, where do you film someone – in an office, a lab, an outside space, their home? This decision will influence what the viewer thinks about this person. Even in audio pieces, it makes a difference whether you record in a studio (which can emphasise the authority of the speaker but sounds flat and sterile) or on location (which risks a confusion of sounds but adds colour and texture to the piece).
Thinking about form also means thinking about what is not said. Artists often talk about the importance of white space – shapes are made by what surrounds them as well as by what they contain. The same is true for all types of communication. By leaving some things out, what is left in takes on a different meaning than if it were contextualised by additional information.
Similarly, leaving in a silence in an audio piece can generate a moment of emotional intensity or give an edginess to the piece. In video, holding a shot for a few moments before cutting away can signal a contemplative mood. But for upbeat fast-moving topics, such effects may be out of place.
So form needs to match content. Pay attention to form, but the ultimate aim is to make the form of your communication seem so natural that it disappears from view. As Philip Ball says in his blog, don’t strain for effect. Don’t try so hard that it shows that you are trying. A good communicator thinks about form to ensure that the audience doesn’t.
Felicity Mellor is a senior lecturer in science communication at Imperial College London
You can also read Lesley Yellowlees‘, Adam Hart-Davis’ and Philip Ball’s tips on science writing.
And you can find out about the Chemistry World Science Communication Competition and submit your entry here.