A handy communications manual for scientists

Crackle and Fizz hi-res

Professor Carole Mundell, a role model on the LF’s Aurora programme, reviews Crackle and Fizz by Caroline van den Brul. Caroline is an LF associate.

The archetypal view of a scientist is one of a poor communicator, possibly in a white coat and certainly so obsessed by their work that they don’t care about ordinary worldly things. In contrast, the stereotype of the popular media is one of superficial reporting of gee-whizz discoveries that may or may not preserve the accuracy so important to the scientists who conducted the research. In practice none of these stereotypes are correct but the need for both parties to communicate cutting edge science to the public is central.

In Crackle and Fizz, Caroline van den Brul brings over 30 years of experience in scientific broadcasting and communication of complex scientific concepts; the central premise of the book is communication through telling a story. Deceptively simple, she provides practical exercises and examples to illustrate and encourage the reader to practise some of the communication concepts and frameworks described as underpinning all good communication. In breaking down and analysing the art of effective communication, the book reaches further than public dissemination of science; indeed, the principles are equally applicable to the next research paper, scientific colloquium or grant application and indeed, may be even more valuable there than in the usual public outreach sphere. The book provides striking examples of good communication – which is much more than explaining a concept in simple terms. Leading the reader through the underlying theory of building the story – from understanding your target audience, to finding a hook and putting across the punchline, van den Brul takes the reader through step-by-step, with plenty of illuminating examples along the way.

An entertaining example is David Miller’s superb analogy of the Higgs field/boson described in terms of a power political figure entering a room full of party activists. This example won the prize of a bottle of champagne donated by the Conservative science minister of the time, William Waldegrave, as the best explanation of ‘What is the Higgs boson and why do we want to find it?” and perfectly exemplifies the power of context and the importance of relating the one’s audience’s experiences and priorities in order to get ideas across optimally and with ease. Other essays shortlisted for the prize are all clear and compelling but it is not until one reads Miller’s example that the core of van den Brul’s thesis hits with palpable force.

The book is a highly entertaining read, but deserves a closer second and perhaps even a third reading as it contains a coherent set of strategies for thinking, crafting and ultimately delivering one’s information in a highly persuasive way and capturing the audience’s attention in a world full of competing distractions. Although, to the novice communicator, it may seem much to take in from one reading, for those serious about developing such skills, the book offers as a practical manual with targetted exercises to take the reader through each concept and allow them to practice them in their own setting. Even if the busy scientist does not have time to work through the whole book in one sitting, it is a useful reference or memory jog for how to think about putting one’s scientific story across as well as a useful glimpse into the mind of a science broadcaster.

Professor Carole Mundell is a professor of extragalactic astronomy, she works in the Astrophysics Research Institute  at Liverpool John Moores University where she holds a professorship (2007) with a presitigious Royal Society Wolfson Merit Award (2011). Carole also participates in undergraduate teaching for the BSc/MPhys joint degrees in physics and astronomy at the University of Liverpool.

Caroline Van Den Brul’s deep rooted understanding of the narrative process was honed through a distinguished career as a BBC science producer and editor. Since 2006 her communication and presentation workshops have helped scientists and other experts from the across the globe impress the pubic (and funding bodies) with the value their work. Caroline is an associate of the Leadership Foundation.

Crackle and Fizz: Essential Communications and Pitching Skills for Scientists is published by Imperial College Press and has a foreword from Professor Nancy Rothwell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester.