So how do science-oriented organizations fulfill this obligation? They must embrace state-of-the-art science communications as much as they embrace the scientific method and peer-reviewed results. Here are 10 corporate communications best practices for science-based companies to use every day.
Know Your Audience
Understanding your audience is key to successfully framing any communication. Even at science-based companies, corporate communications are not all just for technical audiences. Ask yourself, “What does my audience already know about the topic?” Then meet them where they’re at, being careful to provide the right amount of background. It’s also helpful to understand how your audience prefers to receive the information you want to share so you can pick the right delivery method, whether it’s email, video, phone call, text message, face-to-face meeting, presentation, success story or press release.
Carefully Plan Every Message
Once you’ve defined your audience, it’s time to construct your communication. Start by clearly and concisely stating your message and indicating your intentions. Focus on what is likely to be most interesting and relevant to your audience, then give high-level messaging that will have broad appeal before diving into details that may only resonate with the more specialized, knowledgeable subset of your audience. And don’t forget Aristotle’s time-tested advice: “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.” After you’re done with the details, don’t forget to reiterate your key message again at the end of your communication.
Just because you eat, breathe and sleep the subject matter you’re trying to communicate doesn’t mean that everyone else does. Always address the all-important “so what?” question early in your message to pique your audience’s interest. Why does what you’re saying matter? How is it new or different from opinion, speculation, anecdotal evidence or even past results? You may need to give your audience more background info to help them put what you’re saying in context and make it relatable and meaningful to them.
Don’t Dumb Down the Science
You are a science company, so don’t be afraid to practice science communications, which involves telling people about the great work you’re doing — and why it’s important. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to bury your message in complex scientific jargon. Strive for clarity and simplicity, and remember, YOU don’t have to explain everything. Instead, include links to other resources for additional background and explanations. An important part of respecting your audience is being mindful of their prior knowledge so that you don’t talk down to them.
Use Visuals to Communicate
Words are always important, but strong visuals will enhance your communication by helping your audience understand better and more quickly. We suggest mixing the following types of visuals into your communications wherever appropriate: graphs, charts, infographics, photographs, illustrations, conceptual diagrams and maps. Purposeful use of colors can also help draw attention to and convey key points and conclusions.
Use Analogies and Metaphors
Corporate communications for science-based companies often lean heavily on metaphors, which can help make complex concepts more accessible. For example, telomeres are DNA–protein structures found at both ends of each chromosome that help preserve information in our genome. To say a telomere is like an aglet — the small sheath used on each end of a shoelace — is to provide an instant and useful image that conveys an intuitive understanding of their function.
With that said, metaphors can be misleading. The greenhouse effect, one of the most common metaphors used to explain how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to excess planetary warming, also carries meanings of warmth, comfort and protection — the very things a greenhouse provides to the plants growing inside. Because they sometimes communicate unintended ideas, you should use analogies and metaphors carefully when communicating to lay audiences or risk muddling your message and confusing or distracting your audience. The same holds true for clichés.
Engage Your Audience in Person
Face-to-face communication can lead to rich, dynamic interactions, so it’s important to create opportunities to allow this to happen. The more major the news or change being communicated, the more necessary it is to get scientific leaders out in front of employees, investors or other stakeholders. Whether they’re giving a conference presentation or speaking at a town hall, they should intentionally save some of their allotted time for questions and discussion. Before anyone steps up to the podium, they should think about the audience and how they might react to and process the information being presented. They can anticipate many of their questions, which makes it possible to prepare some answers in advance.
Engage Your Audience Virtually
When it’s not practical to present in person, take advantage of your website and social media to engage your audience online. That might mean regular or special posts on social media or building out the FAQ section on your website. For online channels such as social media, designate someone or several people in your company to make posts and to monitor comments and forums. This will ensure that your organization is using a consistent tone of voice.
Be sure to quickly respond to both positive and negative comments but avoid censoring others or over-moderating discussions. There’s no better way to kill enthusiasm for what you’re trying to communicate than by stifling the voices of others. Depending on your area of expertise and topic of communication, you may want to have a plan in place for how to best respond to any anti-science feedback.
Give Your Representatives Media Training
Anyone who appears in front of the media on your company’s behalf should be trained in public speaking and making presentations. Beyond basic communications skills, this kind of training teaches speakers how to define and understand their audience, develop a narrative and come across as relatable and human. This typically requires several sessions and lots of practice, so it’s important to start long before a scheduled appearance or event. Ongoing practice and training also help speakers be prepared for unexpected challenges, such as a crisis or controversial situation that requires careful handling.
Cite Your Sources
In the book “On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research,” the authors clearly indicate the role of citations: “Citations serve many purposes … They acknowledge the work of other scientists, direct the reader toward additional sources of information, acknowledge conflicts with other results, and provide support for the views expressed in the paper. More broadly, citations place a paper within its scientific context, relating it to the present state of scientific knowledge.”
Given the deluge of information we face every day, especially via the internet, properly citing sources is more necessary than it’s ever been. So, take the time to cite your sources to substantiate the messaging you’re communicating. In the process, you’ll empower others to learn more and build upon your work to date.
Practice #11 (bonus practice):
It was Newton who said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It’s rare that a scientist or science company works alone in a true vacuum, so be sure to acknowledge the contributions of others. This involves recognizing intellectual contributions but also recognizing those persons who contributed materially to your work (see #9). As you make these acknowledgments, don’t be afraid to reveal specific challenges that you were able to overcome with the help of others. This can help you tell authentic brand stories, which can enhance corporate communications for science-based companies by humanizing technical information.
Don’t Forget to Internalize
While these best practices focus on external corporate communications, science-based companies will want to apply similar techniques to internal corporate communications, too. Explore our companion article covering best practices for internal communications, and check out this article for a deeper dive into internal vs. external communications.