16 November 2017

Posters teach visual science communication skills

The National Academy of Sciences of the US regularly sponsors the Sackler symposium on science communication. I’ve had gripes with them in the past. I have another this year:

Increase of poster sessions, at the expense of actual speaking opportunities, has a negative effect on #scicomm training of young scientists. – John Burris (Tweeted by Kat Bradford)

“We’ve moved away from encouraging graduate students to speak as part of their training – poster sessions instead of seminars etc. Creates an oral skills gap.” (Tweeted by Lou Woodley)

Burris: Our educational system has moved away from #scicomm (ex. grad talks have been replaced by poster sessions). (Tweeted by Sarah Mojarad)

This sounds a lot like a “Back in my day...” opinion that is not provable. Are presentation skills worse than they used to be? Maybe, but maybe not.

Poster sessions are the domain of academic conferences. Presentations at conferences, whether oral or poster presentations, are not the sort of broad science communication. Giving a lot of academic conference talks to peers does not in and of itself does not make someone an effective science communicator.

Similarly, it’s weird to worry about an “oral skills gap” when most scientists are never going to get to speak in front of large audiences. Successful science communication isn’t about going on a lecture circuit now. Science communication that reaches a lot of people is about television and the internet. (Smaller scale science communication is important too, but those are niche audiences, not broad.)

I appreciate Mammody coming to defence:

I mean okay, yes, getting up in front of people is important, but “audience” is not always literally an audience in a theater or conference room – poster sessions do provide great opportunities to talk about your research and actually engage in dialogue.

Exactly. Burris seems to think that people giving a poster don’t talk. In contrast, someone at a poster session may be talking for hours instead of 12 minutes.

I’m going to flip the script. We should not chastise conference organizers and poster sessions for taking away students’ opportunities to talk (which I doubt). Instead, we should praise posters for introducing visual skills to students that would otherwise not be taught at all.

Look, it seems that one of the most effective communication campaigns last year was carried out by Russia. It appears Russia successfully influenced the 2016 US election. What was one of their methods of choice? Tweets, Facebook posts, and memes, like this one:

This is visual communication.

This is what thinking and working with posters can teach you.

And for all its problems, there is no denying the success of I Fucking Love Science, which has something in the neighbourhood of 25 million followers. It got to that number the same way as Russia: with pictures. As this critique of IFLS notes:

What you actually “love” is photography, not science.

As I noted elsewhere:

There is a lot to learn from the successful formula of I Fucking Love Science. Pictures get shared; see the data from Google Plus below:

People interested in spreading their science shouldn’t just work on their sound bites. They should work on their social media meme images.

Visual communication is powerful communication. Making posters should teach scientists how to focus on creating fewer, more focused, more powerful images.

Update: Close to the end of the day, someone finally remembered imagery:

What picture do you use to illustrate your point? What is this picture conveying to the audience? Finally the importance of #visualcomm mentioned at the #SacklerSciComm – Tweeted by Dominique Brossard

External links

Self-defeating prophecy (2012)
Sackler symposium still doesn’t practice what it preaches (2013)
Sackler improves (2013)

Visual communication image from here.

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