The gap between university researchers and the general public can be large, especially in natural science where fields like physics and chemistry can be hard to grasp for people outside the academic environment.
The last few years science outreach activities have increased across the world partially because digital outreach on social media makes it easier to connect with the broad public, and partially because foundations and universities start to require outreach strategies from grant applicants.
If you are a researcher looking for tips on how to be successful in outreach, you have come to the right place.
Here are three tips on how to become successful in science outreach.
#1 – Plan your outreach
Outreach can be approached in many ways. Public lectures and popular science articles are some of the well-known choices, but also social media, podcasts and YouTube-videos are becoming popular outreach tools for scientists.
It can be difficult to find a preferred method, and for some it can be tempting to start off with as many initiatives as possible – just to get started with something. This will, however, almost always backfire later on.
The first tip is to plan your your outreach. Define your message. There is a big difference in wanting to show the world what an average day for a researcher is and wanting the public to understand how quantum field theory works. Make sure there is a clear message for your audience. It can be a help to you to write your message(s) out in sentences that start with “I want my audience to see/learn/experience….” You can use this later on to check that you do not stray off your outreach plan. The more consistent you are in your outreach, the easier it is for the audience to understand your message.
Put your outreach in the calendar. Whether it is a public talk or a Twitter-update, make sure it is a part of your schedule. The last thing you need as a researcher is more stuff to remember “on the go”, so take it seriously and set aside time for doing the outreach. It can be 30 mins twice a week, it can be a full day per month, it can be 10 minutes per day – there is not right or wrong answer to how much time you should dedicate. The key point is that you set aside time for your outreach, so you will have consistent and frequent contact with the public (also 6 months from now). This leads to the next point of the plan: audience.
Know the audience you want to reach. High-school students are reached differently than board members of grant foundations, so be sure to clearly define for yourself who your audience are. And no, “everybody who wants to listen” is not a well-defined audience.
#2 – Keep it simple
Keep your outreach as simple as possible. If you are in doubt on two different formulations, always go for the simplest option. This goes for language and visuals, but also for the tools and methods you use for your outreach.
Find the method or platform you a) enjoy the most and b) can work with easily. Are you an excellent photographer or can you do awesome visuals like simulations or animations? Then it could be good to start off with social media platforms like Instagram or Twitter. If you are a talented storyteller, then maybe starting a blog or building a public presentation would be more your thing. The important thing is, that you start off by choosing a path, that will not make you lose interest after a few weeks. If you get too overwhelmed by your own ambitions, then your audience will lose interest (if they are even there to begin with).
Use a simple and understandable language. This is a pitfall for many researchers (and people in general who are specialized in a certain field), because many years of using certain phrases makes it easy to forget that people outside this particular field are unaware of the meaning.
Also, and perhaps even more important, there can be certain words and phrases that are understood one way in the public, but another way in your field. This could be the word “chemistry”, which for some people means “artificial food additives” even though it actually is just a word for, well, any composition of atoms. Choose which is more important for you: the meaning of the word or the science that you are trying to convey. Sometimes (I would even claim always) it is necessary to make compromises in order to deliver an understandable message. And if the alternative is that no one learns anything, then the compromise is definitely the preferred option.
#3 – Engage and commit
This is, in my opinion, the most fun part of science outreach: to engage with all types of people and commit to get my message heard, whether it is star formation or science communication. Listen to the people who sees or hears your outreach. What type of feedback do they give? Engage and let them know that you appreciate their questions and comments.
If you commit to science outreach and engage with the people who show up for your talks or comment on your blog posts, it will not only be rewarding for you, it will also help you to become a better science communicator. And this is beneficial regardless of whether if you are motivated by the outreach itself or whatever comes out of it, like successful grant applications or job interviews.