How to overcome the challenges of communicating science

This post originally appeared on "A Science Blog" hosted by ScienceTalk.

More than a decade ago, I left the commercial advertising business and joined the nonprofit world as the marketing director for an environmental conservation organization. To prepare for my first assignment (updating the board of trustees on ongoing projects), I was given a stack of project reports chock-full of details on implementation sites, baseline and post-project survey results, species and ecosystem health assessments, and a list of every activity implemented over a two-year period.

I read through all these reports, each at least 100 pages long, stumbling through new terminology and with my head spinning with questions:

Do these figures represent progress and achievements? What are we learning? What story can I tell? What will my readers care about most? 

My readers were time-strapped and non-technical, and it felt like I was trying to shove a giant square peg of data into a small round hole of attention spans. I felt frustrated by those who wrote the reports and wondered why it was so hard to find the story among all the figures. 

Sitting on the other side of the table
Later in my career, when I was managing a suite of these same projects, I was the one receiving questions from the marketing team on “what’s a story we can tell?” My initial instinct was to give a snarky response that the story is in the 250-page report I spent the previous three months writing. Now from the other side of the table, I felt frustrated that they couldn’t see the stories right in front of them.

Yet I also knew how incredibly important it was to share these stories and results with a wider audience, and how challenging it can be to do so. Furthering an organization’s mission requires a steady stream of funding and support. But it’s getting harder to catch an audience’s attention, and there’s growing competition for members, followers, and donor dollars. This is a tall order for any organization.

Standing out requires creating stronger connections to the work you do and showing proof of the impact you’re having — all delivered through easily absorbed and entertaining stories.

​Tips for telling stories
Here are some tips I’ve learned for how to best represent data and facts in ways that are both interesting and accurate.

Speak to the audience. Not to yourselves.
Your audience is not as familiar with the issue or topic as you are. And you can’t expect them to be. Therefore, it’s important to speak to them on their terms, in their language, and focusing on what is most interesting to them. Remove jargon, get to the point quickly, keep it simple, and be clear on what you’re asking them to do.

Make the project meaningful. 
When trying to get your readers’ attention, and especially when asking for donations, stories must answer this fundamental question for the audience: why should I care about this? We want to believe that our readers always care, but they won’t care to the extent that you do. We have to give them a reason to care (note: that does not say we have to convince them to care). People care most when an issue impacts them or their family, the places they live in, or the things they like and depend upon.

Comparisons over details. 
Your audience may not be able to grasp certain figures that are not used in their daily lives, such as number of hectares, or number of kilometers traveled, or percentages of a population impacted. To make the data more relevant, draw an analogy to something they are familiar with. Hectares can be related to the size of a state or country; kilometers compared to traveling from one state to another; and percentages can instead be framed as 1 in X number of people. Drawing these analogies prevents the reader from glossing over facts they don’t understand and instead highlights the scale of the project in relatable ways.

Show more than tell.
Data can be really exciting and eye-catching when presented in a visual format. And I don’t mean turn it into a bar graph or pie chart, either! Marketing and technical teams can work together to create infographics, engaging icons, and videos that bring the results to life. Not only does this approach paint a clearer picture, but it also makes it more easily digestible and more likely to be shared with others. 

Leave some things out.
It’s okay to leave out some details, including the specific research methodology used. It’s ideal to have that data available and accessible for those who want to dig in, but it doesn’t need to be in the main story. I know this can be excruciating, especially when a ton of work has gone into the research and the project, but most people don’t need (or want) to see it. Focus the main story on what will be most compelling and interesting for your audience.

Writing data-driven, engaging stories will catch your readers’ attention, create stronger connections to the work you’re doing, and motivate them to take action.
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