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    Communication breakdown

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    Today, as I walk around the University campus everything is just as it should be. Students going to classes, tweed clad academics carrying laptops and books and above all I go unnoticed in my casual attire. Yesterday on the other hand was a different story… Yesterday I wore a suit. It seems to be a paradox. Somehow, with just one head I manage to wear three very different hats, all at the same time. Hat number one is my Physics hat. Hat number two is my company owner and director hat. Hat number three is my radio broadcasting hat. It gives me a headache to even think of all three at once. That being said, it’s the balance between the three that holds all the value.

    aa17-aug-sep-2006-communication-breakdownAfter more than a decade of radio broadcasting, I find that I am more passionate than ever about the growing need for good science communicators to facilitate the interaction between this crucial community and the business world. There is a desperate need to bridge that gap and drive forward Australia’s technology excellence.

    Good communication consists of much more than being able to rattle off a series of comments relating to some prepared PowerPoint slides. It requires a deep understanding of the driving forces behind the audience. The arrogant notion that “my work is so important that they will listen” is deluded and ultimately self-defeating.

    There is growing pressure on researchers to interact with the rest of the community, both financially and intellectually. The question we must ask at this point is, are they appropriately equipped to do this?

    Having interviewed more than 500 researchers over the last decade I would have to answer, “Not really”. This is not a criticism of researchers, but an observation that a training gap exists that needs to be resolved. Typically, researchers are provided with little or no formal instruction on how to communicate with non-science audiences. So it’s critical that we all drop the expectation that they will all be good at it!

    Researchers spend the majority of their career communicating science either to their peers or to students. Either way, there is little “translation” required with these audiences. Ask a scientist to explain their field of research to three people from different walks of life. It is a significant task to make the message meaningful and relevant to all three.

    Radio is an excellent vehicle for training people to communicate. I’m often asked, “How do you describe things to people without some sort of visual media?” The answer is simple; we have the best visual media we could hope for – the listeners’ imagination. It’s like reading a book without pictures, we all do it, but we never doubt that there is a definite skill involved in producing a well written novel.

    To communicate ideas to such an audience we need to acknowledge that most people in society have a series of common experiences. That’s the canvas you have to work with. Move beyond that and you start to lose people very rapidly.

    Communicating with the business world is a walk in the park by comparison. There is a clear set of rules to follow and in most cases you know who you are dealing with. If you don’t, then you haven’t done your homework.

    So what is to be gained by researchers if they follow this path of interaction with non-science groups? Well, why don’t we forget all the rhetoric for the moment about money and commercialisation and ticking government boxes? Every time you learn to communicate with a new group you improve your generic communication skills. This has immediate application for scientists. Whether writing a grant application or teaching 300 first year university students, an enhanced ability to see things from the audiences’ perspective is of immense value.

    Personally, I write better grant applications and am a better teacher as a result of embracing a passion for communicating science. Above all, I’ve learned that even with more than a decade of experience communicating science to the general public, I still have a long way to go. As do we all.

    Dr Shane Huntington is the CEO of Quantum Communications Victoria, a State Government-funded program based within the School of Physics, University of Melbourne. He is also co-founder and Director of The Innovation Group Pty Ltd, a Melbourne-based technology company founded in 1999. For the past decade he has been a broadcaster on 3RRR’s science program.


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