Tweeting your active research (as outreach)

At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, 5 friends and I put on a workshop on the use of Twitter in science.  Today: slides and commentary from Cylita Guy’s piece of the #CSEETweetShop.  How can you use Twitter to communicate your active research to the general public?

 

I’m here today to tell you a little bit about some of the strategies I use when tweeting during active research projects. But to set the stage, I need to tell you a little bit about myself first. I’m currently completing my PhD at the University of Toronto, where I study bats and their viruses. A large part of my degree has involved fieldwork, so I’ve spent a lot of time tweeting about this fieldwork to the broader scientific community. However, I tweet about my work for the general public as well, given that I catch my bats in one of Toronto’s largest urban parks. In addition to this, I’ve also spent nearly a decade working at the Ontario Science Centre doing anything and everything from planetarium shows, to toddler workshops, and even some children’s TV. Finally, I have also worked with SciCommTO to organize various, often adult themed, general audience science events. Now, when people hear about the things that I do, they often refer to me as a “science communicator”. I however prefer a different term when referencing my communication endeavours… that is, “storyteller”.

Now, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. You might even by thinking to yourself, “Cylita, scientists don’t tell stories, we talk about facts”. However, I think that part of being a good communicator is being able to spin your message – whatever it may be – into a story (a truthful one, in the case of science). You see, humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. Storytelling has connected us throughout history, making it a great way to share your science (or really anything at all) with people.

As scientists we often don’t think about ourselves as storytellers, but the truth is we tell stories all the time – at our lab meetings, at conferences, and when we sit down with our families over holiday dinners. Now you may ask, how do I tell a story about what I’m doing? Well, the answer (at least for the purposes of this workshop) is simpler than you might think.

You see, we can tell stories in science the same way we tell stories everywhere else. Most stories follow a typical progression, or what’s known as an arc. The story begins with some main character setting out to accomplish a goal, but along the way this main character will have several points of crisis where things don’t work out as expected. The story will climax with the main character facing their biggest challenge of all, followed by an eventual resolution and (perhaps) happy ending. For scientists, this classic story arc mirrors most of our research projects (or at least the research projects I’ve worked on!). We start off with a really great idea and question, but while trying to answer our questions things often don’t work out as expected. We encounter problems that require solving. We solicit help from our colleagues and advisors (the supporting characters in this science narrative). Sometimes it may even feel like we’ll never accomplish what we’ve set out to do. However, in the end, we often come up with creative solutions to get data and answer our question, leading to an exciting new discovery to share with the world. Now, it’s worth noting that just like in science, stories don’t always have happy endings. In fact, there are several different arcs, or paths, that stories may follow. If you’re interested, you can check out more in this paper using a big data approach to the classification problem here.

So with the classic story arc in mind, there are a few things scientists should be thinking of when tweeting (or just talking) about their science. First, facts are all well and good, but you needn’t worry about them as much as you might think. While it’s important to convey key information to your audience, it’s equally important to talk about the process you’re using to acquire the information you’re interested in. What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How are you making it happen?

 

Facts and process aside, you – the scientist – are important too. Don’t forget to tell people about yourself. Who are you? Why do you care about what you do? The reasons you care about your science may not be the same reason granting bodies care about your science. So don’t be afraid to tell people about why you care about dirt, birds, protein folding, or whatever else you may study. It helps to humanize the rather abstract process that is science.

Facts, process, and the person behind the green curtain – these are all critical elements of turning science into an engaging narrative. But don’t forget, the classic story arc has points of crisis in it…which means you also need to talk about failure. Talking about failures, mistakes, and mishap is key to telling stories about science. Tell people about the things that didn’t work. Don’t be afraid to tell people about the time you tripped and smashed a week’s worth of samples. Or the time you deployed a $1000 satellite tag on the same Manta Ray you tagged the day before. Or even the time you spent all day tracking what you thought was a radio-tagged bat, but actually turned out to be a series of cross walks (true story, I did that…more than once. There’s actually a whole book of hilarious fieldwork mishaps. You can also listen to me recount some of my other field blunders on the StoryCollider podcast – needless to say I have no problem talking about my mistakes.) Talking about failure makes us relatable as scientists…and people – scientists and non-scientists alike – appreciate this.

Part of telling your story effectively is telling your story in an understandable way, free of jargon and in plain language. To hit this point home, at the #CSEETweetshop we took a small break to do a Twitter scicomm activity. I asked everyone in the room to tweet a summary of their research using 1-2 sentences. It may not seem like a terribly challenging thing to do, but the trick was that you could only use the 3000 most common English words. Give it a go – I promise it’s fun. You might even surprise yourself with how little technical language you can do without. I don’t always advocate for the removal of all jargon – I think it can be very valuable in a lot of situations. However, this activity is just a good reminder that the jargon we use needs to be defined for our audiences.

Here’s one website that will help you figure out if the words you want to use are common or not. When you’re done, you can tweet out what you’ve come up with using the #CSEETweetshop hashtag and tag @CylitaGuy! Yes, even now – the #CSEETweetshop may be over, but the need for us to talk about our science persists.  I’ve included an example from my own work (above) if you’re curious to see how I would do this activity.

It might have been harder than you thought – but it’s useful to be forced to think about how to tell your work as a story, and about which technical words you really need to include.

There isn’t a single correct way to do all this, of course – but I hope these tips and ideas can encourage you to give scientific storytelling a whirl – whether it’s on Twitter or not!

© Cylita Guy  January 9, 2019


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