Getting the Message Out: Communicating the Science of Pond Scum

I recently presented a communication workshop at the annual meeting of the Northeast Algal Society—scientists and students who study algae, both the microscopic plants that float in pond water and the giant kelp forests of the ocean.

The theme of this year’s gathering was “getting the message out.” The conference organizers, Dr. Jessica Muhlin of Maine Maritime Academy and Dr. Karen Pelletreau of the University of Maine, felt a need to convey the interest and importance of their subject matter to people outside their field (as evidence, check out this video they made).

Those who work with algae have a two-part challenge, because before they can talk about their research or why it might be important, they have to correct misconceptions about algae with some basic education (like in this video from Dr. Thierry Chopin).

The scientists at the meeting were “in the petri dish,” at the kind of internal meeting and conference where scientists really shine as communicators. They are used to talking to each other and exchanging ideas, which is fundamental to the process that is science. But scientists need to be reminded that people outside the petri dish have no idea what they do or how they do it, or most importantly why. As Cornelia Dean wrote in her book, Am I Making Myself Clear, most people leave science behind when they graduate high school, and the science they consider as citizens is not the facts collected in textbooks.

graphic of message box tool

There are various tools to help phycologists and other scientists craft their message. The National Science Foundation has a “message triangle,” which they developed as part of their ongoing Becoming the Messenger workshops. Communications consultant Eric Eckl promotes the use of “words that work” to natural resource agencies and nonprofit organizations. Andy Goodman encourages the use of storytelling. And Nancy Baron of Seaweb and Compass has the “Message Box.” The basic elements of all these frameworks are the same.

However, many of the scientists at the Northeast Algal Society meeting conduct basic research or focus on taxonomy or biodiversity, topics that are difficult to connect to contemporary policy or daily life.

Realizing that many of the participants might struggle with even a simple tool like the Message Box, I tried to find some alternative approaches for those scientists who want to communicate to the public about subjects that aren’t “news” or “policy-relevant.”

The WOW factor.

Most algae are not what you might call charismatic megafauna, unless they involve solar-powered sea slugs or coral reefs. But algae can still be impressive, and casting your subject as a superlative—biggest, oldest, fastest, coldest—is one entry into the human imagination. What would someone who knows nothing about your work find weird, fascinating, or just plain cool?

For example, when I was planning my talk I learned that algae produce most of the oxygen we breathe (because they are aquatic and our planet is a blue planet. Lots of water = lots of algae = lots of oxygen), making them the most important plants on Earth and photosynthesis the most important process on the planet. (For a great lesson on this, watch a lecture by Russell Chapman of Scripps.)

Tell a story.

Storytelling advocate Andy Goodman says that “Humans tend to believe the story and reject the data.” Personal stories can make up for an abstract topic. Providing a glimpse into life outside the laboratory helps to show that scientists are “real people.” Not everyone is born a scientist. Many people take a circuitous route to science, and not all scientists practice “research” in the classic sense, but use their science degrees toward other pursuits; if more young people knew this, they may be more inclined to enter the field. Nancy Baron wrote, “Most scientists want to stick to the facts and the research. You have been trained to be rational and detached—to the point that you write in the passive voice. However, people are interested in other people. Scientists are fascinating, even when their research topic might not be. People are interested to know what you do day-to-day, including why and how you do it. Personal details are a ‘way in’ to the story.” Why are you willing to spend years studying one particular thing? What did all of that dedication reveal?

Check out Northeast Algal Society member Dylan Scott’s blog, which uses a personal viewpoint to communicate science (Dylan also recommends

Make it pretty.

Whenever possible, as a first instinct or last resort, use sensory details. This approach is especially relevant to algae, which make for beautiful images. Use photographs of your study subject and its environment. Remind your audience of the beauty and wonder of nature. Does your subject move or make noise? What does it smell like, taste like, feel like? Once you get your audience’s attention you can get them interested in the details. For inspiration, check out seaweed art at the Cryptogamic Botany Company.

Make it local.

Messages have to be tailored to their intended audience, and people are curious about their own backyards. Can you make your story local? If the organism is rare or exotic, is there a local analog? Can you tell an audience about the algae in their own neighborhood? For example, the local audience on the Schoodic Peninsula, where the Northeast Algal Society meeting was held, would know about harmful algal blooms because red tides affect their local clam flats. Or they might be interested in studies of seaweed because of the predominance of rockweed and kelp along their shores. How can you relate your work to the place where you are sharing your message?