A toolbox for communication

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

A toolbox for communication

A toolbox for communicaion

By Caroline Wood

Whether you’re speaking at a conference or in a lecture theatre – taking some time to brush up your presentation skills will always pay dividends in maximising the impact of your message. At SEB Brighton 2016, we heard from some of the masters in the trade during the “Science Communication Toolkit” session. 

Dreamwriting the Sciences

Ever wished that manuscript would write itself? According to journalist and writer Gilly Smith (University of Brighton), it can if only we would only tap into our unconscious creativity.  ‘Dreamwriting’ (also known as ‘free’ or ‘automatic’ writing) is an approach that helps to draw fresh connections between ideas, experiences and words. It essentially involves writing automatically, without stopping and without worrying about whether what you write is good enough. “Creativity often proceeds by intuitive leaps, drawing from areas of the mind not regulated by rational thoughts” says Gilly. This may explain why our best ideas often come when we are least expecting them. Dreamwriting can be likened to casting a fishing net that helps you to catch all your ideas at once, so you can then pick out the ones you don’t need. “It may not write your thesis but it can get you through the tunnel of writer’s block or pop the champagne cork on your ideas” says Gilly. She has also seen dreamwriting help academics to “fall in love with their research” again, for instance by using it to write short TV or radio scripts describing their work. Gilly also recommends an exercise called ‘The Saboteur’: “In 20 minutes, write a really nice letter to your inner critic, thank them for bringing you here, say why you don’t need them anymore then say goodbye nicely. It can be profoundly empowering”. Whether you use pen and paper, iPad or even a Dictaphone, dreamwriting can help us all to liberate that unconscious stream of genius. 

Biology on the Box

Strategically selected videos have the potential to both simplify difficult concepts and to enthral, making them a powerful tool for engagement. “TV clips can be a useful way to set the scene or stimulate a discussion” says Chris Willmott (University of Leicester, UK). “We often set clips for students to watch before tutorials so we can use the time better”. If you’re based in the UK, your Institute likely has a subscription to Box of Broadcasts (BoB http://bobnational.net/). This comprehensive online archive contains over 2 million TV and radio programmes that can be used for educational purposes copyright-free. But with so much choice, finding the material you want can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, BiologyOnTheBox (https://biologyonthebox.wordpress.com/) has done the hard work for you. “This recommends TV and radio content for enriching bioscience teaching” says Chris, the curator of the site. Entries, including programmes and specific clips, generally come with a review and suggestions for using them in lessons. Besides flagship natural history documentaries, these cover bioethics debates, news clips, panorama specials and even Countryfile episodes. There are also tips for using and navigating BoB, including how to make your own clips from full-length programmes. Those who are already biology-film connoisseurs meanwhile, can turn reviewer and post their own entries, to get what Chris describes as a “warm glow of knowing that you’ve contributed something for the benefit of others”. 

Communicating through Cartoons

According to Anne Osterrieder (Oxford Brookes University, UK), using cartoons is a sure-fire way to give your presentations the unique touch. “Even if you’re not Walt Disney, you can use cartoons to convey information that would take a lot of words to tell” she says. Adding emotions and human touches are particularly effective ways to make your images ‘sticky’ – such as giving the nucleus a monocle to show it is the “wise brain” of the cell. But even simple line drawings can be potent, for instance in depicting protein structures, cells and microorganisms. There’s no need for expensive software – CorelDRAW, Paint, GIMP and (for Ipads) Paper have plenty of features to get you started. You can even cheat by using pictures from websites that stockpile royalty-free graphics, such as Public-Domain-Photos (http://www.public-domain-photos.com/). For those looking to take their creations to the next level, Anne recommends PowToon, an online platform for designing animated videos and presentations that can be uploaded onto YouTube. And if you need inspiration, “the Twitter hashtag #sciart is a great way to discover new science artists such as the Amoeba sisters on Youtube or Errant Science (http://errantscience.com/)” says Anne. 

Images for Impact

With PowerPoint so ubiquitous these days, it can be difficult to stand out from the crowd. But as Mary Williams (Features Editor, The Plant Cell) knows, Microsoft Office has some simple tricks “we can all use without having an arts degree” to give our images impact. Take the SmartArt function for example. This automatically turns bullet-point lists into professional, customisable diagrams at the click of a button. Meanwhile, there is a suite of tools to help you tailor your own images to purpose. The ‘Remove Background’ function for instance, is useful if you want to superimpose a particular object in a photograph front of another background. ‘Crop to Shape’ meanwhile, allows you to instantly fit your image or photo to any shape you desire. ‘Artistic Effects’ can give your pictures the waterbrush quality of a painting or a striking ‘posterized’ feel. Even if you have few images of your own, there are now many online databases hosting publicly-available images. Besides the well-known Flickr, Mary recommends Openclipart, Wellcome Images, Bugwood (for plants and insects) and the New York Public Libraries Digital Collections. Just remember to include the name of the photographer or the source of the image. But before you get carried away, Mary cautions “Just because it’s easy, don’t overuse it. A little goes a long way so use images strategically to reinforce your message”. 


Category: Science Communication
Caroline Wood-Author Profile

Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.

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