Public outreach in science is a important element for the maintenance of our present technology-affected (or afflicted) civilization. Science and engineering (Sci & Eng) activity is continually expanding the scope of the known. The global business sector, without relent, puts new technologies to work and retires others as obsolete. It is as though civilization is in a constant state of catch-up with the tools and materials being made newly available. And the quality of news is quite variable.

When it comes to the electronic and print mass media’s government reporting, the emphasis seems to me to focus on the current budgeting process and political conflict therein. These two subjects are in the “eternal now” in the flow of events. The word “news” is just the plural form of “new” so it is natural that news media focus on present budgeting and in-fighting. Media directors and executives know that reporting must be as concrete as possible and what could be more so than large dollar values and pithy news of political hijinks? Both raise our ire because cost and anger are emotional triggers for people. And emotional triggers bring lingering eyeballs to media.

The public not affiliated with Sci & Eng are quite often unaware of what their tax dollars are actually producing, perhaps many years down the timeline. The eventual outcome of government spending on Sci & Eng may be quite specialized and seem only remotely related to non-Sci & Eng life.

It has been my observation that media equates boring content with failure and compelling content with broadcasting success. The word “compelling” is used to describe something that attracts lingering eyeballs. Modern news broadcasting is the process of jumping from one compelling piece to another. I suppose we cannot blame them for this emphasis on superficiality because apparently it is what “we” want. The big We that draws advertisers and thus cash flow to broadcasters. It keeps the lights on and families fed. Basic stuff that can’t be dismissed with a utopian wave of the hand.

If there is going to be any fundamental change in the tenor and quality of content in media, it will have to come from citizen viewers. This leads me to the thrust of this essay: Those knowledgeable in Sci & Eng must bring the value proposition of current efforts in technological civilization to the citizenry, because broadcast media certainly can’t. By “broadcast media” I mean to include everything right down to what appears on your smart phone. Unfortunately, tech content typically emphasizes consumer goods like automobiles, electronic widgets, space, or miraculous medicine.

Those knowledgeable in Sci & Eng must bring the value proposition of current efforts in technological civilization to the citizenry, because broadcast media certainly can’t in any depth. They’re in showbiz. 

Arguments in favor of rational stewardship of our little world won’t influence elected politicians. But informed and persuasive citizens can influence those who are less so and if they apply some leadership. Carefully. Those who may be less educated and less up to date on the sciency subjects do not take kindly to speech that talks down to them. The hand that reaches from above is still above and off-putting. Learn to communicate on even ground.

What works for me in reaching out to all levels of education is to use humor and a bit of showmanship. Reaching out to the public in a way that keeps their attention is hard to do and not everyone is prepared to do it. Lest you think I am describing putting on a show, not entirely. I am saying that by the deft use of knowledge, public speaking skill, and the strength of personality, it is possible to persuade even the scientifically reluctant to perk up and follow your efforts at making a point. But the point must be accessible. Deep detail and meandering monologue will lose your group. Keep your outreach succinct and limit the breadth to a few pearls of wisdom. Get feedback on your presentation.  With any luck, they’ll go home and jump on Google for more.

If you need help with public speaking, join Toastmasters to improve. Try acting lessons. Join a theatre group. Learn to relax, pace yourself, and enjoy speaking. The better you get at the mechanics of public speaking, the more effective you’ll become.

[Note: The crummy WordPress text editor used to write this post is just abysmal. Why it was changed to the current revision is a mystery to me.  -Th’ Gaussling]