Books you should read before you ever pick up a SciComm book.

SciComm is huge right now.  Some people might even say tremendous.

[Sorry, inappropes, I know.]

There is a wealth of knowledge beginning to be produced and absorbed and applied about science communication.  And the discussion that all of this is producing is truly a forward and positive direction for science practitioners.  But, there’s a problem in the way many of my peers, other students, I have encountered are approaching it.  They approach science communication like it’s a science.  But it’s not*.  I argue, especially after attending an interactive seminar on science communication by Dr. Tim Miller of SpokenScience.com, that by in large, science communication is an art (Art? GASP!).

We are trying to launch into it with methods and it just doesn’t do it justice. We need to know more of the theory behind it and more specifically, how communication feels. You can’t boil it down to an algorithm and as much as we want, we will never always get it right now matter how hard we try.  Communication is a dialogue that gets people intrigued with what you have to say by making them emotionally invested as well. Sometimes someone just doesn’t care either through apathy or just plain having a bad day. although there are ways to ensure success even in the face of an “mentally escaping audience.”

Dr. Miller pointed out that the most important transactions in our lives are still generally done face-to-face.  And I think this super important.  In light of a social media rant from one of my friends, most people don’t know a scientist, or at least the don’t know they know a scientist.  There is the #actuallivingscientist tag, but I think that the most effective way for scientists to make people more aware of science is through face-to-face contact.  In the street, in the bar, at the grocery store, at a panel event, wherever.  We should still do all those other things like blog posts and social media, and articles and interviews, but face-time is still the  .

Full disclosure, before I ended up in the trajectory I am in now, I was heavily involved in the theatre and got a dual degree in both Anthropology and Biology.  The theatre and anthro really helped me gain an appreciation for narrative and the importance of the emotional, random, improvisational, and chaotic nature of effective communication. There are some books I read before I ever picked up a science communication book. The lessons gleaned from these helped me understand and retain the lessons I am relearning for my newest journey.  Even if you have read every scicomm book there is, there is still reason to read these too.  It’ll only help you get better.

Here is a list of some of my favorite books on communication:

  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
    • My Dad, was a mechanic for the Air Force. But once he returned from Vietnam, basically decided to make his own schedule and from that point on has been successfully self-employed.  As I was about to leave for college he told me to read this book, because “No matter where you work or who you work for, you will always be selling YOU.  You must sell you in the interview, sell you in the day to day workplace, and sell you to your bosses, coworkers, and maybe eventually employees.”  Great advice from a great man (although I am a bit biased on that one).  If there is only time to read one book on this list, make it this one.
  • The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
    • Like Star Wars? How about Lord of the Rings? Maybe you like murder mystery instead?  Well the thing they all have in common is the Hero’s Journey.  Campbell was a visionary that described the monomyth and the underlying narrative structure of much of human storytelling.
  • Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer
    • His manual for creative writing is mainly geared for scifi & fantasy, but it is so wonderfully illustrated and informative (with exercises!) that this is a great tool for storytelling.
  • On Writing by Stephen King
    • A more general memoir on the craft of narrative.  It’s kind of a classic.
  • Poetics by Aristotle
    • During the workshop, Tim mentioned that the idea of the realms of science and art being two separate worlds is a recently new phenomenon. But they didn’t necessarily start separated and don’t necessarily need to be now.  Some of the forefathers of science were also the forefathers of art. This is a great example of that notion.

I hope this short list** of texts pull you out of your comfort zone a little.  It will make you a better science writer to have these in the background and as resources. It will also give you some good context when you do start picking up scicomm books.  Remember, it all fits in with the intermediate disturbance hypothesis (ecology nerd joke alert).


* I think, however, that there is actually great benefit to be gained out of this pursuit.  We should study the idea and process scientifically***.  But it isn’t the end all be all approach; it won’t get us all the way there.  It can’t be truly understood through the process of science.  Using a formula to assemble parts that have been derived from studying communication will only get you part of the way.  It may work, but then again, it may fall flat on it’s head if the user can’t read an audience or hasn’t practiced or hasn’t….well you get the picture.

**I would also like to include The Elements of Style, Strunk ; On Writing Well, Zinsser; and Bird by Bird, Lamott, but you have to stop somewhere.

***After you have read the books in this list, I suggest using a great transitional book into science communication by Randy Olson named Houston, We Have a Narrative. Randy actually does wiggle out a fairly simple formula, and after I read this book, I found structuring my stories much easier.

hafoIXK.gifMy work here is done.

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