Designing Science Communication

Part II: A Strategy


I never design a building before I’ve seen the site and met the people who will be using it. — Frank Lloyd Wright


Design Thinking & Science Communication

In Part I of this article, I discussed Design Thinking as a process and a philosophy — not a script or an algorithm — that is grounded in empathy, innovation, and experimentation. Human Centered Design, a name that is sometimes applied to this kind of process, emphasizes a deep understanding of people we design for — whether they are potential users or customers, or, in the case of science communication, intended audience(s).

As a general process, Human Centered Design helps us identify people’s needs and innovate ways to meet, alleviate, or even preempt these needs. Applied to science communication, it challenges us to ask who our intended audience really is, learn what makes them tick, and acknowledge where their interests, attitudes, perceptions, and biases intersect or stray from our own, in order to make our communication more meaningful.

Human Centered Design

I’ve spent the last few years exploring how this approach might be applied to science communication. I’ve synthesized insights from 18 months’ research, iteration, feedback, and refinement into a strategy that I believe can help science communicators themselves think more like designers.

In this article, I’d like to explore this resulting strategy and its six facets, and describe what they might look like in practice. Elaborating on this strategy has also been my goal in creating reference cards, worksheets, workshops, and talks.

(I’m always looking for feedback from grad students, scientists, and science communicators who are willing to experiment, share, and provide their honest feedback; please don’t hesitate to reach out!)

Cultural Cognition

In Part I, I also identified a handful of psychology and communication research models that I’ve found especially relevant for understanding and developing empathy for people — as individuals and as communities. While each model and theory provides a unique set of insights, when it came time to make this kind of strategy more practical, I decided to narrow my scope and focus on the work of the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale as a foundation for understanding audiences. However, the value of this process is that science communication practitioners should feel empowered to use any resources available to understand their audiences—whatever is personally relevant, comfortable, accessible, or otherwise preferred. The key is to make that understanding a priority.

Throughout my work, I have found the “Group/Grid” model of Cultural Theory especially helpful. As an introduction, it’s worth reading Dan Kahan and Donald Braman’s Cultural Cognition and Public Policy, a basic primer on the model and its implications for public attitudes and risk perceptions.

As Donald Braman once described it to me, Cultural Cognition Theory, (and its associated “personas”), aims not to create caricatures of people, but instead to understand people’s motivations:

(Cultural Cognition describes) how people fit into social networks they inhabit, and that puts the emphasis on the mechanisms… Ordinary people are both driven by and drivers of social norms that are shared and circulated through interaction with friends, family, and information sources. In order to coordinate their daily lives with others, they need to establish trust, and they need to signal shared commitments to get that trust. There clearly aren’t just four types of people out there, but the signals we send to each other about who we are and the values we affiliate ourselves with do a lot of work for us. If those signals were too esoteric and diverse, they wouldn’t do us much good. So people develop a sort of social shorthand about the kinds of things that make sense to us and how they cohere, and we signal to each other with those commitments.

In essence, the theory describes two scales that form a 2 x 2 matrix of values that drive human understanding of science and risk, motivates people’s reasoning, and influences their perceptions.

Cultural Cognition matrix

People tend to be more hierarchical or more egalitarian, and more individualist or more communitarian. Where these values intersect we see a “cultural worldview” that guides an individual’s general values and attitudes toward perceived risks.

Though people hold values across the spectrum on both scales, it can be instructive to imagine the four quadrants as distinct worldviews:


Hierarchical — Individualist

“Personal ambition is a virtue, not a vice.”

Values:

personal freedom within a traditional social structure

unrestricted opportunities to compete and pursue individual interests

Threats:

destabilization of traditional social and family structures

outsider interference and externally imposed restrictions


Hierarchical — Communitarian

“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Values:

strong community values in a traditional social structure

conventions that support the good of the community over individual needs

Threats:

policies that threaten traditional family or social hierarchies

individual behaviors that undermine the strength of a community


Egalitarian — Individualist

“Everyone should be free to choose their own path.”

Values:

personal freedom & individual rights for everyone, regardless of context

unrestricted opportunities for individuals to compete as desired

Threats:

patriarchal social conventions & government oversight

intrusions or restrictions on personal freedom


Egalitarian — Communitarian

“One for all & all for one!”

Values:

community stewardship & responsibility to others

equal access & participation for all, regardless of class, gender, race, or age

Threats:

restrictions on participation or access for certain populations

conventions that reinforce social inequalities or undermine community


These four worldviews can be useful in understanding how groups of people develop certain opinions. For example, Egalitarian-Communitarians tend to believe climate change is a real threat, especially when it is framed in themes like environmental stewardship, when its outcomes are associated with threats to communities, and when its causes are attributed directly to unchecked industry and commerce. Ackowledging the threat presented by climate change affirms Egalitarian — Communitarian values, so people with this cultural worldview are more likely to assign credibility to information that supports climate change.

On the contrary, Hierarchical—Individualists are less likely to see climate change as a threat — not because they consciously deny evidence supporting it, but because they unconsciously assign greater credibility to information that affirms their values, (as we all do). Climate change messaging often implies a need for restrictions on commerce and industry and outcomes that may limit personal freedoms. Hierarchical—Individualists find these themes threatening to their values, and they subtly and unconsciously assign less credibility to evidence supporting the existence of climate change when framed in this way.

However, when climate change messaging is framed instead in themes that affirm Hierarchical and Individualist values, such as human resourcefulness and competitive innovation, Hierarchical—Individualists are more likely to accept evidence that it is a real threat. For example, the Cultural Cognition Project recently found that, when exposed to information about geoengineering, Hierarchical—Individualists were more concerned about climate change risks than those assigned to a control condition.

However, as Donald Braman also explains, it’s important to remember that Cultural Cognition Theory:

isn’t a typology derived from those value-dimensions, it’s the fundamental social-cognitive link between values and factual beliefs in setting after setting. Once you see how that link motivates cognition on contested issues, the prototypical characters assume their useful role of illustrating how those mechanisms function in broad strokes. Drawing recognizable pictures of these characters that people can identify in the world around them helps in the explication of the basic theory, but it is important to remember that they are culturally & historically contingent characters that are animated by the more fundamental process that is much more general.

Why is a model like this so useful? Because we can’t always talk to individual members of the audience we intend to communicate with, and we can’t always know the exact motivations, biases, and perceptions our audience bring to the conversation. If we did, we might tailor our communication uniquely to each individual, each scenario, or each goal, (whether it be to educate, persuade, or entertain). But in the absence of that deeply personal connection to our audience, we are still left with the necessary challenge of understanding them — often from afar, and in aggregate. Models like Cultural Cognition Theory, among others, provide a way to design for common motivations and perceptions in the absence of firsthand ethnographic research or when our communication moves beyond one-on-one cocktail party conversations.


A Design Strategy

for Science Communication

In Fixing the Communications Failure, Dan Kahan writes,

People tend to resist scientific evidence that could lead to restrictions on activities valued by their group. If, on the other hand, they are presented with information in a way that upholds their commitments, they react more open-mindedly.

The challenge, of course, lies in figuring out how to present information in that way. As I mentioned in Part I, there are no perfect recipes for science communication because it takes place in locally situated, culturally influenced contexts. However, working through each of the six facets below can help communicators develop that situational and cultural awareness, and arms them with a scalable approach to any number of communication challenges. I’ll describe each of the six facets below.

1. Self-reflection

Understand how your own values influence your communication.

Considering how your own values and cultural worldview manifest in practice can help put things in perspective and improve your communication. Even when scientists aim to communicate purely “scientific” information with objectivity, their personal values influence the message — and its interpretation.

Choices (deliberate or otherwise) in tone, voice, narrative style, metaphor, and visuals all frame information, sometimes very subtly but powerfully.

Awareness of your own tendencies is the critical first step in the process of communicating more effectively. Consider:

—Which of the cultural worldviews above resonate most with you?

—Where have you traditionally fallen in your attitudes toward controversial or politically polarized topics?

—Who do you find yourself most likely to argue with at family gatherings and cocktail parties?

—What are your personal values? Do you see them expressed in your conversations with other scientists, science communicators, or with the general public?

2. Empathy

Understand how your audience’s values influence their perceptions.

Empathy is a deceptively simple term. It’s not the same as sympathy.

It implies a “walk in one’s shoes” level of understanding; many argue that we can’t really, truly empathize with someone we don’t know, that we can only sympathize at best, or pity at worst.

I’ll leave that argument for the philosophers and instead point out that both sympathy and empathy come from the root word pathos: an understanding that originates from a place of compassion, a sense of shared human experience.

This kind of understanding is crucial for effective, powerful communication. More than age, gender, education, or political leaning, a person’s values and worldview influence how he or she interprets information, especially about science and risk related information. If our message is to be meaningful, we have to meet our audience where they are.

Of course it’s not essential that you know your individual audience members’ worldviews; we know that to be impractical, if not impossible. Even with that type of information available, our goal would not be to create completely different versions of a message for different groups — in practice that strategy quickly borders on the deceptive and disingenuous.

It’s more effective, and certainly more practical, to develop an empathetic understanding of the values within each worldview and build an intuitive sense for the type of information framing that threatens or affirms each one — not just the values you hold yourself.

Sure, in some situations, it makes sense to study or talk to your audience. Colleague at the cocktail party? Argumentative uncle at holiday dinner? Small group seminar or workshop? These are perfect opportunities to practice that most critical step in the design process— getting to know and empathizing with your audience in a direct manner. But outside these ideal circumstances, there are several models that can be reasonable stand-ins for firsthand audience research (some of which I described in Part I).

Neil deGrasse Tyson once said:

Humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others, be they humans or other animals on Earth. So maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.

Why not start with your own communication practice? Consider:

—Which perspectives and topics have you often debated with others? What values can you see driving the other side of these debates?

—How might you approach a particular topic differently if you held a different set of values, or if your audience held a different set of values?

—Consider a bit of role-playing. Next time you are preparing to write or speak to others on a particular topic, pretend you’re operating from a different worldview. “If I were Hierarchical-Communitarian, I would feel..”

3. Identity Affirmation

Frame information in a way that affirms values.

We all hold certain values, developed over time and place in the context of our cultural and social groups, upbringing, and life experiences. We also may strongly disagree with values held by others, and as such, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable to take any strides in a direction toward those disagreeable values — or worse, to do anything that affirms these values. But our goal is more effective and persuasive communication, and we must meet the audience where they are. That means we must affirm their values— even those we disagree with.

We may aim to change attitudes, change perceptions, maybe even change minds — but we must leave the challenge of changing values, (a far, far more daunting task), for another time. But fear not; we can affirm others’ values without agreeing with them ourselves, or even supporting or explicitly endorsing them. And it turns out that doing so makes them far more likely to consider and accept the message we’re communicating.

I sometimes imagine this process in a manner similar to a dog’s tendency to put things in its mouth, as dogs do. Dogs often pick things up (sometimes, gross things), with the sole intention of rolling them around on their tongues to feel the object and understand it better — not to swallow it — and subsequently spit them out. Perhaps we could learn a little from dogs in this regard.

When communicating about scientific topics, look for ways to share information that do not lead to single, one-sided judgments. Instead, consider a multiplicity of interpretations that may still point to the same general conclusion.

Design your message to allow for slightly different interpretations so that people with different worldviews may reach conclusions that affirm their values.

For example, vaccine messaging tends to focus on community responsibility, but that frame will not resonate with someone with strongly individualist values — in her mind, she may find the potential risks of individual side effects and other emotionally frightening scenarios far outweigh the value of any potential good to a community of nameless, faceless strangers. Instead of chiding or condescension that focuses on herd immunity and blames individualist values for recent outbreaks, why not include messaging that also provides individualist frames, such as emphasizing the personal benefits of vaccination as a smart choice?

Consider the following appeals to each of the different values. There are often many possibilities to include affirmative themes for different values in the same message.

hierarchical: stability, authority, expertise

egalitarian: equality, access, participation

individualist: resourcefulness, independence, privacy

communitarian: collaboration, community, stewardship

4. Avoiding Threats

Be deliberate in avoiding threatening language and value judgments.

Sometimes, it’s not practical to affirm all the various cultural worldviews’ values in a single message. Depending on the circumstances and the nature of the message, it may be less relevant, too difficult, or even problematic to incorporate affirmative themes for multiple values.

However, it’s crucial to at very least avoid threatening or alienating specific worldviews, which can contribute to polarization on a given topic. By becoming more mindful of the way information is framed and how certain judgments may threaten particular worldviews, we can communicate with a wider audience more effectively.

Consider the following threats, and try to avoid messaging that emphasizes or implies these kind of themes.

hierarchical: harsh criticism of traditional social roles and industry

egalitarian: denial of participation, access, or status

individualist: interference, constraints on personal freedoms

communitarian: unrestricted competition, threats to social supports

5. Pluralistic Advocacy

Draw support from diverse sources and cultural worldviews.

People tend to assign greater credibility to experts who share their own values. Because of this tendency, people are less likely to become polarized on a topic when they observe trustworthy people who share their values advocating unexpected positions. In Fixing the Communications Failure, Dan Kahan suggests:

Make sure that sound information is vouched for by a diverse set of experts. In our HPV-vaccine experiment, polarization was substantially reduced when people encountered advocates with diverse values on both sides of the issue. People feel that it is safe to consider evidence with an open mind when they know that a knowledgeable member of their cultural community accepts it.

In practice, this can be difficult. Sometimes experts with diverse values can be difficult to find or call on. Rather than seeking different “spokespeople” for each set of values, it can be equally effective to simply find past references and quotes from credible sources with diverse values that point in the same direction as your message.

For example, if you are communicating about a topic related to environmental risk, you might try to include quotes or references from both traditionally Egalitarian — Communitarian sources (such as The Union of Concerned Scientists) as well as Hierarchical — Individualist organizations (such as Young Conservatives for Energy Reform) to elaborate on a position or support your message.

In addition to seeking advocates with diverse values, the use of particular metaphors that appeal to a variety of worldviews can accomplish the same goal — to provide your audience with multiple ways to access and identify with the message.

For example, I applied this strategy to a case study in vaccine messaging that compared vaccines to seat belts — drawing parallels between the many benefits and (often overblown) fears associated with each, as well as the tendency for most common “community responsibility” frame to resonate with some worldviews but not others. Individualist worldviews, for example, feel threatened by the personal mandate and assign more weight to fears of being trapped by a seat belt or succumbing to vaccine side effects than to any potential benefits to a larger community.

By providing multiple arguments for vaccination that appealed to several different values, (including personal benefits to individuals’ immune systems, community benefits such as herd immunity, and financial implications for healthcare and taxpayers), audience members were more likely to consider the benefits and dismiss the risks of vaccination.

—Call on experts with diverse values to advocate various positions in your message, or find quotes and evidence from sources across various cultural worldviews.

— Explore a number of potential examples and metaphors until you find one that may provide a number of interpretations.

6. Emotional Resonance

Tell a meaningful story.

When information is shared in a compelling narrative form that uses vivid metaphors, not only are the language processing parts of the brain activated, but other areas in the brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are engaged too. Studies show that people remember facts told in the context of a story better than any other form.

In other words, your message will be far more meaningful (that is, entertaining, persuasive, or informational) if you engage with the audience in an emotionally resonant way. Use powerful images, language, and narrative structure.

There are a number of ways to approach this aspect of communication. The particular method is less important than the effort applied. As a foundation, I recommend familiarizing yourself with the concept of the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell identified this pattern as a fundamental pattern of narrative design in storytelling throughout human history.

The Hero’s Journey

While there are hundreds of great resources on the power of storytelling, I often recommend three in particular for science communication.

In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte writes about the power of storytelling and demonstrates how crafting a powerful narrative can lead to the most compelling (and persuasive) presentation of information. She illustrates success stories and provides guidelines for good presentations.

One of the most valuable parts of Duarte’s book is her discussion of the Hero’s Journey and its underlying structure found in many of the world’s oldest and most compelling movies, films, and books. Duarte provides a number of very clear illustrations and examples that bring the Hero’s Journey to a concrete level that can be applied to science communication. Effective communicators often design their messaging so that the audience becomes the “hero,” and the communicator takes on the role of mentor as he guides the audience through the journey of the message.

Winning the Story Wars, by Jonah Sachs, echoes many of these sentiments. Though his book is written with advertisers in mind, his guiding principles are very applicable to science communication, and he argues that marketing does not necessarily imply deception or disingenuous communication. To the contrary, he suggests (and explores through numerous examples and case studies) that good storytelling can make information compelling for highly ethical and “good” reasons, an argument I believe many scientists will find reassuring and perhaps inspiring.

Finally, in Don’t Be Such A Scientist, Randy Olson writes about how to make science compelling. A Harvard-scientist-turned-filmmaker, Olson writes,

the powerful and effective communication of science has to be much higher priority than ever or the science community will lose its voice, drowned out by either the new anti-science movement or just the cacophony of society’s noise.

In the book, he offers a primer on the nature of mass audience appeal, suggesting it all boils down to making connections with four body parts, each with increasing power to captivate and engage:

head: intellectual engagement

heart: emotional resonance

gut: visceral experiences

crotch: sex appeal

His recommendations to the science community, that I whole heartedly embrace, are:

1. Don’t be so cerebral.

2. Don’t be so literal-minded.

3. Don’t be such a poor storyteller.

4. Don’t be so unlikeable.

Harsh words, but rather effective.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, the goal of this work is to help the science community communicate better. That type of lofty goal doesn’t happen in the 20 minutes spent reading an article, or after a day-long workshop, or even after a university course. It happens over years of reflective practice and organizational and philosophical change. This strategy can’t accomplish all that, but what I hope this strategy does offer is an entry point for someone interested in that future who might not have recognized it previously.

It may only be a conversation starter for some, or it may become a go-to set of communication design guidelines for others. Whatever it is, this strategy draws on the insights of social science, rhetoric, and communication design with the intent of making these insights actionable.

To accompany this strategy, I’ve developed a set of reference cards and a worksheet that are meant to double as take-away resources and collaborative workshop exercises. You can download these for free; I encourage you to let me know if you find them useful (or not!) and share feedback for an improved second edition.

I’ve recently participated in conferences where interest in this type of work seems to be growing. Working with organizations like Public Communication for Researchers, I’ve facilitated workshops designed to help graduate science students and postdocs apply this strategy to their practice; working with organizations like Canada’s NSERC I do the same for professionals. I’ve presented at conferences like ComSciCon, SXSW, and the AAAS Annual Meeting and am always open to suggestions for other opportunities.

My goal in sharing this work continues to be the solicitation of feedback— so that I can work with others invested in science communication to improve it. If you’re interested in collaborating in any way, please reach out.


Ultimately, this strategy has a fractal quality about it—it may prove most relevant as a standalone set of guidelines, a collaborative workshop, a graduate course, a university curriculum, or something else entirely—and while I hope it can offer something of value to the field of science communication, I also look forward to its evolution through many more iterations.