Information or messages

16 August 2010 0 By Viv McWaters

Heard an interesting interview on the radio this morning about science communications and the need for more literary science writing. In another life, I was quite interested in science communications – even dabbling in the writing of. I eventually became frustrated with scientists wanting to ensure everything was covered, that all ‘stakeholders’ were acknowledged and it was ‘professionally’ written. By professional, I think they meant in the style of a scientific journal – which frankly has never been my style. It didn’t seem to matter that the audience was usually an educated lay audience rather than the scientific community they were used to writing for.

At the heart of this dilemma is fear. Fear of being wrong. Fear of being found out. Fear of admitting that sometimes, despite our best efforts, we just don’t know. So the story is drowned in facts, in graphs, in details. All very commendable but not at all engaging. And importantly, the message is lost amongst all the information.

I’ve seen this lately with climate change and other environmental communications. Information overload. People don’t engage because you give them more information. They don’t listen to your argument because of the weight of the data supporting your argument.

We listen, and engage, when you reach our emotions, when we are affected by what you say. I’m reminded of an improv principle (isn’t there something from improv for every situation?) which says ‘be changed’. The characters need to change in some way for the scene to be interesting. Maybe that’s also true of science writing – the reader needs to be changed by what they have read. This may not mean they have changed their mind, rather it reflects a change in feelings, maybe from apathy to interest, from absolutely sure to doubt, from interest to excitement.