I recently had a chance to hear Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki on triple j radio in Australia. Known simply as Dr. Karl, he has a weekly national show answering science questions on an alternative rock radio station. Yes, science on rock radio. Yes, national. Yes, Thursday morning – when people are listening. Frankly, he is good -- really good, really interesting with a continuous number of callers wanting answers to science questions.
This got me thinking, what can we learn from the top popular science communicators of our time? So I spent some time listening and reading some of their past work to determine what I could take away. Make no mistake about it. Learning to communicate technical information is a work in progress for all of us. Learning from these masters can help. Starting with Dr. Karl.
Dr. Karl covers a remarkable range of facts and background materials. One of his common methods of relaying information is a form of storytelling. Specifically, the stories are importantly related back to the listener’s personal experiences. Psychology researchers Schank and Abelson have a term for this: they call it “mapping the speaker’s stories onto the listener’s stories.” Consider the following examples from a recent show.
A listener was wondering why ice evaporates if left for a long period in a freezer. Dr. Karl responds with, “Think about water on a little puddle in the road. It does not get above 100 degrees C but it evaporates…”, the reason is explained that some of the molecules in the puddle do get to 100 degrees. He goes on to explain that something similar happens in the freezer, but at a much slower rate.
Of interest is how he explained this. Clearly, it was easier to “map” this story onto the image of a puddle on the road, as opposed to what the conditions are inside a freezer.
Another listener had a question about GMO crops. To give a background he starts with an image for the listener. “Have you ever been walking along a long a field of long grass, and you see those little tiny grass seeds that are about the size or smaller than the size of a match? That’s corn.” He goes on to discuss how grass seeds were bred into corn over thousands of years. Again, mapping to a familiar image of walking in a field. Then after that background, he discusses the modern approach to producing GMO crops.
The Dr. Karl weekly shows are available as podcasts. There is a lot to learn from him, both science and the art of presenting information. Additionally, during winter in the Northern hemisphere you can almost hear the sunshine through the broadcast from downunder. Read More