How to get your message across

Don't Be Such A Scientist: Talking Substance in an Age of Style

Island Press: 2009. 208 pp. $19.95, £12.99 9781597265638 | ISBN: 978-1-5972-6563-8

Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist's Guide to Talking to the Public

Harvard University Press: 2009. 288 pp. $19.95, £14.95, €18.00 9780674036352 | ISBN: 978-0-6740-3635-2

The gulf between science and the rest of the world seems to be widening. If you think that keeping your head down, doing your research and not attempting to bridge that gap is enough, two books might convince you that science needs your voice — now.

Genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter commands attention through passionate communication. Credit: M. NAGLE/GETTY

The first is Randy Olson's Don't Be Such A Scientist. Olson was a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire in Durham before packing in his job, packing up his life and moving to Hollywood to learn how to make films. He passes on everything he's learned and saves you the trouble of the embarrassment he experienced as a scientist being cut down to size by film types.

Although the book focuses mainly on making and watching films, it gives some excellent insight into the general areas of communication in which scientists often fail.

Olson has five areas of advice that he uses as chapter headings: 'Don't be so cerebral'; 'Don't be so literal minded';' Don't be such a poor storyteller'; 'Don't be so unlikeable'; 'Be the voice of science!' He advises that scientists need to communicate in broader terms, add some humour once in a while, not shy away from speaking about things in an emotional way, tell interesting stories and be congenial.

Olson gives an excellent explanation of why scientists often have problems communicating with the public, saying that science is a process of “attempting to falsify ideas in the search for truth” and noting that “the masses thrive not on negativity and negation but on positivity and affirmation”. He postulates that, when talking to a general audience, a scientist should try to suppress any urge to be negative because it comes across as arrogant and condescending, something that will often turn an audience against the speaker. This suggestion might not be welcomed by those readers who feel that scientists should never compromise.

Olson believes that science holds the fate of humanity in its hands, and if scientists are incapable of sharing their knowledge with the public then the results could be catastrophic. As more and more people make up their minds about a subject on the basis of a speaker's style, rather than the substance of what they are saying, learning how to speak about science with style is a crucial skill.

The only problem with this book is that the kind of people who need to read it are those who may be most put off by its style. Olson communicates with his audience in exactly the way he suggests — with humour, emotion and plenty of stories. Some readers may feel that it shouldn't be so much, well, fun.

If you want the facts, laid down in a simple, unfussy style, then get a copy of Am I Making Myself Clear? by Cornelia Dean, veteran science writer and former science editor of The New York Times. This book should sit on the shelf of every scientist, science communicator and university press officer. I've never read a better, more thorough guide to science communication in all its forms.

Dean's suggestions for how to be interviewed by a journalist — for print, radio and television — are spot on. From the preparation you need to do, including how to dress on TV, to always assuming everything you say is 'on the record', her book is packed full of valuable information. She also advises on producing content for the web, writing your own book and press releases, and dealing with politicians.

As Dean puts it: “We need to adopt a broader view of what it means for researchers to fulfill their obligations to society. It is not enough for them to make findings and report them in the scholarly literature. As citizens in a democracy, they must engage, and not just when their funding is at stake.”

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Milinovich, G. How to get your message across. Nature 462, 723 (2009).

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