It is a gratifying experience for change agents to be able to effectively engage with an audience.
But have you ever battled to keep a group involved as you felt their interest slip through your fingers like quicksilver? Had that sinking feeling as you notice straying eyes (or worse, closed eyes), more attention on smart phones than your message?
How can you make what you have to say more interesting than peoples’ social media feeds and the mental checklists they are creating in their heads that they will be able to action – just as soon as they can escape your presence?
High school science teacher Tyler DeWitt was dismayed to discover his students just didn’t share the same enthusiasm as he did for his lesson on bacteria:
DeWitt was stumped when even his favourite student told him that she didn’t understand the reading he had set, and that it was boring. The looks on the other students’ faces told him that although they may have taken notes or memorised phrases, they had not grasped the meaning.
Thinking on his feet, DeWitt decided to get his message across in a more compelling way, casting the bacteria and viruses as characters in a story about ‘secret agent viruses’ – here is an excerpt (you can watch the clip above for the entire version):
DNA is like a blueprint that tells living things what to make. So this is kind of like going into a car factory and replacing the blueprints with blueprints for killer robots. The workers still come the next day, they do their job, but they’re following different instructions. So replacing the bacteria DNA with virus DNA turns the bacteria into a factory for making viruses – that is, until it’s so filled with viruses that it bursts. But that’s not the only way that viruses infect bacteria. Some are much more crafty…
When a secret agent virus infects a bacterium, they do a little espionage. Here, this cloaked, secret agent virus is slipping his DNA into the bacterial cell, but here’s the kicker: It doesn’t do anything harmful – not at first. Instead, it silently slips into the bacteria’s own DNA, and it just stays there like a terrorist sleeper cell, waiting for instructions.
DeWitt notes that there are a couple of reasons the original text didn’t ‘stick’ with his audience.
Firstly, the scientific language has been stripped of emotion and meaning to preserve its ‘serious’ image:
…in the communication of science there is this obsession with seriousness. I used to work for an educational publisher, and as a writer, I was always told never to use stories or fun, engaging language, because then my work might not be viewed as ‘serious’ and ‘scientific’…God forbid somebody have fun when they’re learning science. So we have this field of science that’s all about slime, and color changes. And then we have, of course, as any good scientist has to have, explosions! But if a textbook seems too much fun, it’s somehow unscientific.
The second reason is that the language is often incomprehensible, especially to young learners – instead of using a phrase like ‘These viruses make copies of themselves by slipping their DNA into a bacterium’, science textbooks use phrases like ‘Bacteriophage replication is initiated through the introduction of viral nucleic acid into a bacterium’.
Thirdly, there is the ‘tyranny of precision’ - the obsession with making sure every detail is accurate, to the point that the non-expert loses the meaning, and which works against storytelling. DeWitt humorously notes:
It’s like science has become that horrible storyteller that we all know, who gives us all the details nobody cares about, where you’re like, ‘Oh, I met my friend for lunch the other day, and she was wearing these ugly jeans. I mean, they weren’t really jeans, they were more kind of, like, leggings, but, like, I guess they’re actually kind of more like jeggings, like, but I think…’ and you’re just like, ‘Oh my God. What is the point?’
Or even worse, science education is becoming like that guy who always says, ‘Actually.’ Right? You want to be like, ‘Oh, dude, we had to get up in the middle of the night and drive a hundred miles in total darkness.’ And that guy’s like, ‘Actually, it was 87.3 miles.’ And you’re like, ‘Actually, shut up! I’m just trying to tell a story.’
The takeaways from DeWitt’s talk are – if you want your messages to ‘stick’ to your audience:
- ditch the jargon
- focus on the meaning rather than preserving 100% accuracy
- make it fun!
I have a colleague, Simone, who used to be a high school science teacher. Her teaching peers could never understand why the students were not only keen to get to her lessons, but determined not to miss them.
What was her secret formula? Was she bribing them? Threatening them?
My colleague had turned her science lectures into a mock crime scene investigation. She tapped into what was ‘cool’ with TV shows like Mythbusters and crime forensics dramas where she saw a myriad of maths and science tasks that could be modelled on pop culture.
Rather than lecturing at them, the students were actively involved as participants in a story. It was a challenge for them to resolve, and in a much more visceral way than they otherwise might by watching CSI episodes on TV. Similarly, DeWitt advises:
Pick up a camera, start to write a blog, whatever, but leave out the seriousness, leave out the jargon. Make me laugh. Make me care. Leave out those annoying details that nobody cares about and just get to the point. How should you start? Why don’t you say, ‘Listen, let me tell you a story’?
So take a leaf out of Tyler and Simone’s book – don’t be boring, make what you’re trying to teach full of meaning and fun for your audience.
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