Communicating science

Last week, NSF and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine sponsored a science communication talk led by the one and only Alan Alda. (Check our Storify for a lively conversation online about the event). One of my goals as NSF Director is to communicate our outstanding achievements more broadly, so people understand the value of NSF-funded research and can better appreciate how it relates to their interests and their daily lives.

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Alan shared some very useful ideas for how we can all do better at communicating:

1. Remember: More is not more. When speaking to an audience, it is more effective to narrow your message down to two or three points maximum. Generally, people cannot fully process and retain more than a few points, so carefully selecting only a few major points is an integral part in successful communication.

2. It’s important to actively listen and pay attention to your audience’s body language and feedback. A good communicator will appropriately react to their audience and modify their message delivery in real-time.

3. Passion relays a message. Scientists: Get excited about your research and talk about it with non-scientists!

After the talk, leadership from NSF and other organizations met for a two-day, hands-on communications workshop, where we sharpened our interview and presentation skills.

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It was an eye-opening – and important – experience. Here are some thoughts from a group of NSF’s assistant directors about the workshop:

“I cannot understate the importance of communicating what we do to a general audience. A few simple lessons and effective coaching can vastly improve your presentations” – Roger Wakimoto, assistant director, Directorate for Geosciences

"This experiential education to improve science and engineering communication is very powerful and will be very useful to me.” – Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director, Directorate for Engineering

“The workshop provided me a wonderful opportunity to look at how science is understood from a completely different perspective – from the point of view of the community we serve.  The activities and exercises were truly effective and offered innovative methods to convey complex ideas and engage in productive communications. I’m already working to implement what I learned.” – Joan E. Ferrini-Mundy, assistant director, Directorate for Education & Human Resources

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From left: Joan E. Ferrini-Mundy, me, Alan Alda and Pramod Khargonekar