The strapline of this year’s National Science and Engineering week – ‘talk, text, rhyme and sign’ – provides an ideal opportunity to explore what science communicators can learn about communicating science across media formats from entertainment professionals.
The Internet has been a boon for public engagement with science by allowing anyone with a microphone or digital video camera to create their own low cost DIY science programming. This growing use of digital media for engagement has necessarily turned science communicators into media producers. Whether it is the daily updating of a Twitter feed, the creation of a video for YouTube or the weekly dissemination of a podcast on iTunes, scientific organizations have taken direct control of media production for their engagement work. Digital media’s democratization of media production and dissemination is certainly an exciting development for science communicators, but it presents new challenges. After all, scientists’ and scientific organizations’ expertise is in areas other than media production.
For the past ten years I have studied science communication through entertainment media including science consultants’ role in the production process.1 The increasing number of initiatives facilitating scientists’ involvement in entertainment productions, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences’ Science and Entertainment Exchange , means that entertainment professionals are gaining even more experience dealing with scientific content.2
Show, don’t tell
Last year I served as a judge for The Scientist magazine’s ‘Labby Awards’ for science videos . All the contest submissions were scientifically sound and conveyed a passion for their subjects. Yet, sadly, many submissions were not very good videos because their creators did not embrace the feature that makes video a unique medium: visuality. In my research I found that Hollywood studios often employed scientists to work with their art departments before they even considered having scientists fact-check their scripts. Science’s visual elements are entertainment professionals’ primary concern in making a successful film or television show. Once they get their visuals in order, then they can address the scientific accuracy of their script. After all, why go to the bother of creating a video if you do not take advantage of its visual nature?
Writing’s first principle is ‘show, don’t tell’, but it is also a mantra embraced by entertainment professionals working on visual media. For entertainment professionals, ‘show, don’t tell’ is an admonition to use film and television’s visual strengths to convey information without the need for excessive exposition through speech or text. People often forget that film developed as a technology without sound so it is able to convey information purely through visual means.
Science is inherently visually interesting because it combines the natural world’s visual splendor with high tech gadgetry, novel computer simulations and the graphical beauty of raw data. Scientific visuals display for audiences what scientists see when they perform science. Visuals highlight the process of science, which is one of the key elements for engagement. The temptation is to add exposition to images, but entertainment professionals understand that if visuals are done correctly the essential information will be conveyed to audiences without exposition.
A good science video can go ‘viral’ and reach millions of people. Physicist Jim Kakalios’s video explaining the science of the film Watchmen  received over 1.6 million hits on YouTube. Some of the best science videos, such as the ‘Hadron Collider Rap’ and the ‘PCR Song’, combine the fun of science songs with the eye-catching visuals associated with music videos. These examples work because they play to the visual strengths of video’s media form as well as to music’s strength in creating humorous and catchy songs.
The sound of science
The use of audio for science engagement has increased dramatically with the growing popularity of podcasts. Technologies like MP3 players and RSS feeds have made it easy to reach a worldwide audience even from a simple kitchen setup.
Marcel LaFollette’s research into science on the radio provides some historical insights that can help inform producers of contemporary podcasts such as the need to create pre-scripted dialogue and to include dramatic sound effects2. She found that many organizations looked to radio in its heyday as a means to offer universal science education. One of radio’s primary benefits for education is the fact that audiences do not have to know how to read. Radio also mimics interpersonal communication by offering a sense of intimacy and creating an imagined community that makes scientists seem personable and accessible.
In radio’s early days, scientists frequently treated broadcasts as if they were delivering public lectures. However, any radio/podcast programme that merely imitates a lecture is doomed to fail. We tend to forget that scientific lectures rely on visual components such as illustrations, graphs, PowerPoint slides or demonstrations. The speaker’s physical presence also conveys visual information to an audience through gestures and other emotional cues. Similarly, the absence of live audiences for radio/podcasts means that presenters do not have any visual cues based on audience reactions to guide them. The last twenty years of science communication research also tell us pretty clearly that lectures are not the most effective mode by which to engage the public.
Radio has long been referred to as the ‘theatre of the mind’. Aural media necessitate more concise sentences and simpler language than visual or written media. But, radio/podcast programmes also require the use of detailed descriptions. Radio producers understand that an engaging show requires enough detail for audiences to create images in their head of what the presenter is talking about, but not so much description as to confuse audiences. The need for detailed descriptions of scientific concepts is especially important since audiences will be unable to draw from previous mental images to visualize these concepts. The balance needed between simple language and sufficient descriptors is why radio professionals and scientists often employ metaphors and analogies to facilitate visualization. Aural media also benefit from the presence of multiple voices. Not only do multiple hosts bring in different perspectives and personalities, they also make the listening experience less monotonous. A conversation is always more interesting to listen to than a monologue.
Where science is concerned, textual entertainment media, such as novels, have advantages over other media forms. Primarily, written texts provide more opportunities to include descriptions and exposition without becoming cumbersome. Unlike in other media, textual media is the one form where the use of unfamiliar jargon can be acceptable because textual media has space for sufficient explanations. One of the pleasures of reading science fiction or techno-thrillers is in discovering new scientific concepts or new technologies through creative word use or new terminology.
Fiction writers recognize, however, that the ability to write as much as you want means that there is always the temptation to write too much. Superfluous information drags attention away from a text’s central storyline or message. Fiction writers have learned to be selective and to distill their scientific content to include only what is most important for the story. Twitter represents an extreme example of textual distillation. This truncated form of textual communication (140 characters or less) actually forces a writer to be concise but still get across the necessary information.
The primary lesson to learn from entertainment professionals’ experiences with scientific content is that media forms are not interchangeable. Entertainment professionals are experts in the creative arts. Their livelihoods depend on their ability to utilize a given medium’s strengths and navigate its constraints in order to tell a good story whether it is through talk, text, rhyme or sign.
Science communicators can certainly benefit from entertainment professionals’ experience communicating science across media formats, but we need to keep in mind that entertainment professionals only incorporate science because they believe it adds entertainment value to their texts. Entertainment, not science, is their main concern. Therefore, they will routinely sacrifice scientific accuracy in the pursuit of entertainment, especially to overcome any constraints imposed by a specific medium. Science communicators should strive to make their public engagement activities entertaining, but they should never sacrifice accuracy in the service of entertainment.
1 D A Kirby (2011) Lab Coats in Hollywood, MIT Press
2 M LaFollette (2008) Science on the Air, University of Chicago Press
Dr David A. Kirby lectures in Science Communication in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester