Science Friday is a great show on many levels, but if you are someone who needs to communicate complex information on a regular basis, I believe the show can be an excellent learning tool. The key: You have to listen with a careful, critical ear. What does that mean?
Whenever I'm involved in a workshop, helping experts learn to communicate more effectively, I find that some of the best learning comes from the peer-to-peer interactions. A room of scientists listen to one of their colleagues describe her work, and then offer feedback on what she communicated well, and where she muddied the waters. I, the instructor, prime the situation by making sure the audience is listening well. "As you listen, see if you can hear the main points she is trying to convey. Does she explain the technical aspects clearly? Does she answer questions directly and succinctly?"
Given this kind of direction, the others in the workshop typically become incredibly skilled at hearing the strengths and weaknesses in their colleague's delivery. And, of course, in the process of offering those critiques, they each internalize invaluable lessons on communicating science well.
A show like Science Friday offers a terrific chance to exercise these same communication muscles. In each week's show, you will hear examples from across the spectrum of science communication, from the excellent to the unintelligible. Very often those examples can be found in the very same interview. Just last week I heard a guest answer one of Ira Flatow's questions with beautiful, concise clarity. But minutes later, she rambled so badly that a frustrated Ira had to re-ask the same question several times to get things back on track. If you were listening to that same segment in a casual, distracted way, I doubt you would have heard the problem. But listening with a careful, critical ear, most folks couldn't have missed it.
And therein lies your opportunity for an excellent weekly communications workshop. Listen to the show, and listen carefully. With each segment, ask yourself these kinds of questions:
Does the guest clearly state the main points of his work?
Does he explain the technical aspects clearly, or get bogged down in too much detail and jargon?
Has he made me want to go and learn more about that topic?
Does she answer Ira's questions directly, or make him struggle and fight to get at the info he's seeking?
And finally -- and this is a big one -- can you feel the scientist's passion for her work? Ira Flatow is an energized interviewer. Sometimes the guests feed well off of this energy, and express their work with infectious enthusiasm. Other guests miss this opportunity completely, and all that potential energy gets lost.
Think through these questions, and your own answers to them. Then reflect on your reactions the next time you're preparing to communicate your own work. Are you following the same suggestions you created for Ira's guests? If not, work a little harder to make sure you are.
Communicating science well is not easy. Learning to do it well takes time, and it takes practice. But it is, I believe, a fun and incredibly worthwhile pursuit. Put in the effort, and you will get better, and better, and better still.