By Total Internal Reflection
Total Internal Reflection (https://totalinternalreflectionblog.com) is a blog focusing on the human side of the scientific life, and is produced by Brooke Morriswood and Oliver Hoeller. Brooke is a junior group leader at the Department of Cell & Developmental Biology at the University of Wüzburg, Germany; Oliver is a freelance science illustrator based in the Bay Area, USA.
Here, TIR offers a few pointers for anyone thinking of getting involved in the bench-to-blog scene…
There’s never been a better time
With WordPress for bloggers, Instagram for photographers, YouTube for vloggers, and the world’s loudest-ever microphone in Twitter, there’s quite simply never been a better or easier time to get started in online science communication. Not only are there a whole variety of different ways of getting your message out, but social media has also democratised the process. You don’t need to be a professional communicator or even an expert user, you just have to want to give it a try: this is the age of the empowered amateur. The range of technologies also means that…
…you don’t have to be an extrovert
Not so long ago, getting involved in science communication meant standing up on a stage in front of an audience and (the horror, the horror) directly engaging with them. That’s not everybody’s idea of fun. Nowadays, you can reach an audience of literally millions without any performance anxiety or even showing your face – whether it’s words, photos, animation, or just a video of your hands drawing a schematic, there’s no longer a need to place yourself centre stage. Leave that to the attention-seekers.
Don’t succumb to imposter syndrome
It’s easy to shy away from getting started because you don’t feel qualified (“Who am I to talk about Science? What right do I have?”). Suppress it. You are the world expert in your own project, and who cares if there are older people out there who know more about science than you do? If they’re not communicating, the way is clear for you; if they are communicating, there’s always space for new arrivals – especially young ones. Never forget the power of being able to address your own peer group directly. And the more output you produce, the more valid you become.
Find your medium
In general terms it boils down to a choice between words, pictures, audio and video (but don’t forget about music!).
Blogging: low-fi (text only), relatively easy to produce in terms of effort, the least ephemeral, and extremely fast post-production (editing and spellchecking). WordPress is a very user-friendly platform, with great support, and the basic package is free to use.
Images: fast to produce, very powerful immediate impact, easy to consume, longer post-production. Instagram is probably the go-to here.
Video: slow to produce, long, sometimes very long post-production, but easiest to consume and possibly the most immediate way of connecting to an audience. Audio is similar but carries a lower production and post-production time commitment. YouTube is still probably the place to get started.
Basically, use what comes most naturally to you and feel free to experiment.
It’s genuinely important
With the increasing permeation of science into everyday life, it’s troubling that it’s still socially acceptable to be scientifically illiterate in many groups, even some otherwise well-educated ones. Add to that the anti-science backlash that’s ongoing in some areas, sometimes even in the higher echelons of national governments. Then remember the increased need for public accountability of publicly-funded research. All good reasons for showing who we are, and why what we do matters.
Have a clear mandate
Make sure that your blog/portfolio/gallery has a clear mandate so that you can define and colonise your own niche. Keep your content focused around that area and your audience will know what to expect; too broad a mandate and it can be difficult to build up a dedicated readership or following.
Don’t fall into this trap:
Day 1: “Hello world!”
Day 30: “Why don’t you like me, world? Forget it!”
Stick at it. You’re not going to have an overnight audience of thousands. Build it up slowly and believe in what you’re doing.
Don’t obsess about traffic
It’s hard, but try not to fixate on the metrics (views/visitors/clicks). If traffic is what you want, that means clickbait content and lowest common denominator themes. Go start a celebrity gossip site or a funny cat picture blog if that’s what you’re after.
Focus on the product
A leaf out of Steve Jobs’ book of Apple wisdom (or call it the “Field of Dreams” principle) – if you have good content, your audience will find you. Expend your energy on making your content as good as possible, and don’t be lured into spending too much time on promotion.
Learn to qualify your language
Maybe/probably/likely/almost certainly/often – these words are your best friends, whatever your mode of delivery. They let you make a statement but without claiming unilateral factual authority. If you’re doing this in your spare time, you probably won’t have time to do all the necessary source-checking or data acquisition to make your content factually watertight, but by qualifying your language you maintain wiggle room.
Set yourself a posting target and stick to it. That way it becomes a habit and you’ll maintain a steady output. Posting regularly at a fixed frequency is better than boom/bust cycles. Once per calendar week is a good target.
Only do it if you want to
Communication is like research – you need to believe in what you’re doing in order to sustain yourself. Whether you want to explain why your research topic is so fascinating, or you need a stress valve to vent your frustrations about the daily grind and career prospects, or you want to try to inspire the next generation of kids to get involved, make sure that you’re doing it with sincerity.
And have fun!
The Biochemical Society’s Science Communication Competition runs every year to award outstanding written and video Science Communication. You can check out previous winners and find out about the 2019 which, opens in January, here.