Communicating Effectively about Wildlife Conservation

Photo by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Whether it is working with lawmakers, garnering public support, briefing reporters or encouraging behavioral shifts among a group of people, the ability to communicate clearly and effectively is one of the most important aspects of conserving wildlife species and habitats. Many scientists, however, tend to be knowledgeable about analytical thinking and research methodologies, but they are rarely trained to communicate with non-scientists.

Following are some best practices to get your message across with the general public:

Know Your Audience

Fish and wildlife managers are often called upon to work with people ranging from other scientists and policymakers to local hunters, anglers and citizens with limited knowledge of science. Each of these audiences has a different understanding and interest level about a particular conservation issue or even the science behind certain wildlife policies.

When you communicate, always consider the audience you are addressing: are they policymakers, subject experts, fellow scientists, reporters, non-scientists or kids? What do they know already about the topic? Are there political tensions surrounding the issues?

It helps to consider that scientists and the general public communicate differently, according to the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “While scientists often start by placing research in a historical context, the public wants to know the point from the beginning,” reports AAAS.org.

SCIENTISTS                     GENERAL PUBLIC

Background                          Results or Main Point

Details                                  It Matters Because…

Results/Main Point              Details

Organize Your Thoughts

If scientists and the general public communicate differently, how can you speak their language effectively, especially when communicating about complex scientific principles?

First, it helps to organize your information into concise and clear messages. Your audience’s attention span is very short, and your message is competing with many other headlines. Make sure you get to the point right away. A valuable tool for organizing your thoughts is The Message Box from the book Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter by Nancy Baron. The author encourages scientists to consider these questions:

  • What is the main problem?
  • Why should my audience care?
  • What do I want my audience to do or support?
  • How will my audience benefit if the problem is resolved?

Once you’ve answered these questions, develop clear, concise and compelling message points that will resonate with this particular group of people. Work to get your point down to a few lines for each message. Keep asking yourself why this audience should care about this topic, and continue to refine your messages so they improve over time. This method can be applied to everything from media interviews and public presentations to brochures and websites.

“If you can’t explain what you’re doing and why you’re doing it to any intelligent layman,

that really means that you don’t understand it yourself.”  

Allan Bromley, former president of American Physical Society

For planning communications programs, the easy-to- remember RACES process has helped Judy Stokes Weber, a communications consultant who was the Public Affairs Division Chief at New Hampshire Fish and Game Department for 24 years.

“RACES means Research, Action Planning, Communication, Evaluation and Stewardship,” explains Weber. “Make sure you and your team have a clear understanding of the problem or opportunity you face. You can’t collaborate unless your team is all trying to solve the same problem.”

Speak Their Language

If you want the public to listen, use language that non- scientists can understand and appreciate. The general public rarely understands scientific terms. Often scientists  in different fields don’t even use the same scientific terms in the same way. Avoid jargon, shorten your sentences and use simpler, non-scientific words to explain your point. You don’t have to simplify your science; instead, simplify the language you use to describe it.

According to Arthur Lupia of University of Michigan’s Department of Political Science and Institute for Social Research, “Many nonscientists … find our lexicon difficult to access. They see many scientific presentations as needlessly abstract and disconnected from their lives,” he writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) article “Communicating Science in Politicized Environments.”

Ask your non-scientific family and friends to review your PowerPoint presentation, press release, website content or pamphlet. Can they understand everything? Was anything unclear? Did they find it interesting or helpful?

You may not even see the scientific terms in your documents, but your layman friends probably will. Keep refining your communications, based on what you learn. Continue to try to simplify your message so it will be better heard.

Between 80 to 90 percent of information

that comes into the brain is visual.

David Hyerle, ThinkingFoundation.org

Show, Don’t Just Tell

A picture says a thousand words. How can you use photos or graphic images to reinforce your message, simplify complex topics quickly or grab the public’s attention?

Remember graphics should be tied to your audience’s interest level and knowledge of the subject. Just as with written communications, don’t overcomplicate graphics with information that distracts from the main message and won’t be easily understood or appreciated by your audience.

Each year, the journal Science and the National Science Foundation host the International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge, which recognizes some of the most illustrative and impactful visualizations in science and engineering. If you need some inspiration, visit this website www.nsf.gov/news/special_reports/scivis/.

Deal with Social Media

It’s no secret that social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have become an integral part of our society and have important implications for wildlife planners, according to Katie Clower, Fish and Wildlife Policy and Planning Coordinator at Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“One reason is the increased pace of information exchange,” says Clower. “Messages – and therefore all of the emotions and reactions those messages generate – travel very quickly these days and cannot be easily contained or controlled. This can create enormous energy around a project or decision. And that energy may be supportive or destructive.”

The balance between responding quickly and yet providing accurate and thoughtful information requires both flexibility and consistent messaging across the organization. As Kelly Siciliano Carter of Michigan DNR adds, “If we aren’t part of the conversation than we will be the conversation. We have very active Facebook and Twitter accounts for the Michigan DNR. We are quick to share information, and we are open and direct with our conversations. It is definitely paying off.”

Make Commitment to Communications

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region

Succeeding in communications requires a commitment to developing the skills and staff for public outreach. At the Michigan DNR, Carter supervises eight full-time employees and two students focused on communicating with customers via everything from videos, annual reports and brochures to educational posters and social media outreach. Team members have backgrounds in wildlife management or wildlife programming, but they also are good communicators.

“My unit is responsible for sharing our stories, marketing our products and demonstrating the relevance of our agency,” says Carter. She recommends that fish and wildlife agencies, “Hire the go getters, give them some room, positive energy and guidance, and they will change the way your agency communicates.”

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