To communicate science is to tell a story. And the best stories come with pictures, says Thaís Moraes.
Translating the results of a research project into a 10-minute presentation or article can be a difficult task. It must be informative but also succinct and appealing. It has to tell an interesting story. It has to entertain. And you shouldn’t have too much text.
Vision is our dominant sense. Research scientist and science photographer Felice Frankel said in an interview for MIT news that society is becoming more and more devoted to images. Smartphones, wireless internet access, and visual social networks, such as Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr, allow users to easily create, use, and enjoy visual content. Science communicators can engage everyone by taking advantage of this new culture.
In 2000, the average human attention span was estimated at 12 seconds. Now it’s eight. Images are processed by the brain very quickly and our attention span is very short. It’s easy to lose an audience when presenting research in a way that’s not easily digestible and appealing, because the volume of information is often huge and diverse. The use of visual elements can boost audience engagement, according to tests of recall and item recognition. The use of visuals can also help ensure your audience retains your message.
Lloyd Spencer Davis is a professor of science communication and the director of the Centre for Science Communication at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He believes that scientists are still favouring text over other means of communication. In an article published last year in the journal Science Communication, Spencer Davis points out that visuals are frequently added just to complement the written material. Even these must be carefully chosen, he argues, because they won’t work if they are not meaningful to the target audience.
It isn’t just about using visual material, but how to use it. Frankel works with scientists from diverse fields, helping them to use visual content efficiently. Too much information can cover the main message. She suggests that even removing colour can have better impact.
Scientists are having to develop graphic design skills to fulfil journals’ new requirements. One example is the graphical abstract. It summarises an article’s main findings and is used by many journals, such as Cell, FEMS Microbiology Reviews and Nature Chemical Biology, to promote their papers. These are crafted to grab attention and stimulate interest, by conveying useful information and by being visually attractive. Although the importance of communicating science using visuals is becoming increasingly evident, science communicators are not usually trained in visual literacy. In the Help-desk project, graduate students give advice and guidance to science and engineering colleagues about their scientific figures. They believe that scientists can produce more effective figures after acquiring some design knowledge. I started practising and will conclude with a widely recognised visual resource, the infographic:
Thaís Moraes is a research fellow currently at Heidelberg University in Germany, where she researches Zika virus. She is interested in how science can help us have healthier and happier lives