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As communications professionals – particularly in an agency setting – we pride ourselves on our ability to pivot at a moment’s notice, adapting to new conditions with speed, agility and aplomb. But if anyone can knock us down a peg, it’s Sonia Singhal, a Ph.D. student in the University of Washington’s Department of Biology. Singhal studies the evolution of bacteria and viruses, and has literally watched evolution happen before her eyes in a matter of days. Talk about putting things into perspective, right?

Singhal recently presented her research at Town Hall Seattle as part of the UW Science Now lecture series, which aims to bridge the communication divide between science researchers and the general public. The series is an extension of UW’s Engage seminar – a relatively new student-run program that teaches graduate students how to engage lay audiences in their research by ditching the recitation of obscure data points in favor of a softer storytelling approach.

As a communications professional who also happens to be sci-curious, I can’t help but applaud these efforts. I recently sat down with Ty Robinson, one of the program’s co-directors, and Jessica Rohde, this year’s seminar instructor, to learn more.

As it turns out, the seminar’s lessons are pretty intuitive (insert rocket science joke here), and closely mirror what Weber Shandwick preaches to our clients: Know your audience. Creative a narrative. Cut the jargon. And most importantly, answer the big question: “So what?”

Notably, the program flips a well-worn academic presentation formula on its head: Instead of starting broad and building to a point, students are encouraged to seize the audience’s attention from the get-go – an apt lesson in an age of information overload and dwindling attention spans.

As Robinson explains, the benefits of the program are manifold. At an individual level, even career scientists must stop separating the study of science from the communication of science, if they are to compete effectively for research grants. After all, what seems interesting and worthwhile to a group of one’s scientific peers may be downright incomprehensible to someone at a public funding agency. On a broader level, the program also works toward a more altruistic end. As Rohde explains, scientists are becoming more removed from mainstream society – and as a result, the practice of science has fallen from respect to obscurity and even denial. Yet society’s most pressing issues continue to be rooted in science, regardless of the citizenry’s willingness to pay attention.

Given the stakes, programs like UW’s Engage seminar are surprisingly rare – though Robinson and Rohde note proudly that the seminar is in very high demand among UW’s science graduate students. To learn more about Engage, check out the program’s website, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

For those interested in learning more about the state of scientific communications today, Robinson and Rohde were kind enough to recommend a few books on the subject, including Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s Unscientific America and Randy Olson’s Don’t Be Such a Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style. I also welcome you to inquire about Weber Shandwick’s Element Scientific Communications specialty group, whose core services include scientific storytelling, thought leadership, market conditioning, creative data communications, medical communications, grant writing and more.

Image courtesy of fdecomite.

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