7 ways to effectively communicate agricultural science
January 3, 2019
Who is ready to hit the ground running in 2019? We are going to need all hands on deck to appropriately and effectively communicate our agricultural stories in the New Year.
One of my resolutions is to improve the way I present the messages I want to share. It can be easy to just preach to the choir (other producers) and as a result, we often use language that speak to our value systems and beliefs. But how are our consumers receiving our messages? How are they interpreting our science?
These were the questions asked by Mike Dahlstrom, associate professor of journalism and mass communications at Iowa State University. Dahlstrom presented at the National Institute for Animal Agriculture Antibiotic Symposium held last November, and an industry friend of mine recently shared his message with me.
The 13-minute presentation is titled, "Communicating Your Science: What's It Really About?" and I've put together a quick summation of Dahlstrom's key points to help us all be better advocates in 2019.
“In a nutshell, Dahlsstrom says we often revert to the transmission model. We believe we have knowledge that the consumer doesn’t, and we try to transmit our knowledge across many barriers to be received by our audience.
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Dahlstrom says, "Science uses words that often mean nothing to a non-expert. Describe your science only using words your audience uses frequently."
Analogies and metaphors
"Maybe a picture is worth 1,000 words, but a great metaphor is worth 1,000 pictures," he explains. "Analogies and metaphors offer a comparison to allow a complex topic to be understood through a familiar idea."
Place abstract ideas into everyday contexts through specific stories to increase relevance, he suggests.
Dahlstrom adds, "Instead of saying, 'antimicrobial resistance is a serious threat to public health,'" we could say, "Robert should have recovered quickly from his surgery, but MRSA had other plans."
Consider the best model of communication
In a nutshell, Dahlstrom says we often revert to the transmission model. We believe we have knowledge that the consumer doesn't, and we try to transmit our knowledge across many barriers to be received by our audience.
"This does not work," he says. "Knowledge is important but it's not easy to interpret until it's applied to an underlying value system. It is this application that drives attitudes, behaviors and acceptance of scientific technologies. There are many competing values across audiences. Science describes and explains the world but can never tell society what should be done."
Use the public engagement of science model to communicate with consumers
"The public engagement of science model is one we need to think about," he says. "Under this model, controversies about science represent a necessary function of the democratic process. The role of communication is to facilitate discussion toward decisions informed by societal values and accurate science. This is a two-way engagement between expert and public. Let everyone debate values and determine how to apply the best science moving forward."
Understanding value systems
To understand how personal value systems impact the way we receive information, Dahlstrom explains how four different viewpoints interpret the hot topic of sustainability.
Egalitarians believe greed has destroyed shared resources and that we need to return to smaller institutions and simpler lifestyles where everyone does a little.
Those who believe in an overall hierarchy say a lack of order has destroyed shared resources. They believe we need new organizations with rules and enforcement, and an authoritative truth needs to be accepted.
Individualists say that unnecessary social burdens have destroyed resources. They desire more freedom to allow solutions to arise from competition and say other groups are scaremongers.
The fatalists say destroyed resources are inevitable. They believe all other groups have failed sometime in the past, so stop wasting time and energy trying.
Interpreting science through the lens of our own values
In presenting scientific information to the public, Dahlstrom says, "The audience will seek out information that aligns with their existing needs and values. They will also interpret science information through the filter of those values. It doesn't make science communication easier, but it will make it more effective."
Ultimately, he says agriculture needs to ask these fundamental questions when designing messages for the public: What is my goal? Who is my audience? Why would they care? How best can I reach them? What values might guide their interpretation of my message? How can I earn their trust?
As we enter a new year, we have 365 new opportunities to share our agricultural stories. If we are to be effective, we must not only have sound science to share with the public, but we also must appeal to the value systems of our audiences. ❖
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