I seem to know a lot about Things That Can Go Wrong™ in public outreach. I’d love to say it’s only because I’ve seen other people do them, and have never done them myself. Sadly, I’m as guilty as the next person. Here are some of the blunders I may or may not have committed.
Posting something on social media before it’s official. I think I’ve only done this once, and I don’t think it was too disastrous, but it happens all the time. In my case, it was a video (put together by Ángel López-Sánchez) that is to have an accompanying press release, but it (still) needs to be cleared by people higher up the food chain. It got posted on Facebook by someone else, and then Ángel let us know that it wasn’t official yet. Later that day I was watching it home, and absent-mindedly tweeted it. Once again Ángel reminded me it was not official yet, but by then it been retweeted almost a dozen times to a lot of people. Oops! The dangers of social media misused!
Breaking a media embargo. Thankfully I’ve never done this (honest!) but it happens all too frequently. Big scientific journals like Science and Nature like to get the biggest media splash by releasing their stories to media outlets on the condition that they all publish their stories after a specified date and time. Most of the time it works out fine, but occasionally some poor journalist goes public a little too soon… and a lot of people get pretty annoyed. Sometimes the authors of the paper break the embargo, as happened with the discovery of the first planet around a Sun-like star, where the planet was announced at a conference in Florence before the paper was published.
Use technical jargon. I’ve probably (okay, definitely) committed this faux pas, but I really try to avoid it as much as I can. But sadly, I’ve heard a lot of scientists doing public outreach, especially on live radio, where they end up using jargon without really explaining what it means. As soon as you start using technical words – or worse still acronyms – most of your audience tunes out because they don’t understand (note: not because they can’t understand). When you’re talking about thermodynamics, to take an example I heard not long ago, try to define all the terms you use, especially if they might have a specific meaning! Who out there without a degree in physics or chemistry knows what “work” is in that context?
Know your audience. Try and do a little bit of research about the people you’re about to speak to; they won’t like it if you talk down to them too much or if they have no idea wat you’re talking about. While it’s always better to err on the side of caution and assume an audience of people with no background in what you’re talking about, sometimes that’s not the case., and you can generally figure it out. For example, you don’t need to describe technical terms to people who (should probably) know them. I gave talks as a student that definitely dumbed things down too much. Speaking to amateur astronomers can be tricky: some people in your audience will be super-enthusiastic and have built their own telescopes and ground their own lenses, but some will not and have no technical expertise at all. In that kind of situation, I always try to strike a balance: a few pretty pictures and a couple of plots of real data usually does the trick.
So there you go. As usual, not an exhaustive list, which almost certainly means that I’ll revisit the topic in the future! 😉