Scientists’ Presentations: Whiteboard Beats Phone Q&A, Beats Webcam

Anecdotal insights from a World Resources Institute climate change communications video experiment offer hints for improving messaging techniques … but with plenty of not-so-fast qualifications.


And the winner of the scientists’ presentations on recent climate research is the whiteboard video. Followed, at quite some distance, by the scientists’ voice-over conversations with some slides. And, further back still, the webcam of the scientists perched in front of a computer screen in the comforts (?) of their own offices.

The exercise, the authors are quick to point out, was by no means scientific, and the resulting conclusions as a result are pretty much just anecdotal. The reality is that a different audience, different scientists as presenters, different subjects of their presentation, different timing — all likely could have led to different results. But that doesn’t detract significantly from the merits of the undertaking.

What it was is this:

With support from Google.org, the World Resources Institute (WRI) in Washington, D.C., engaged three scientists to do a series of video presentations. The May program attracted votes from some 1,531 observers — again by no means a random sampling of the general public.

The three scientists, and the World Resources program manager, Kelly Levin, had met during a June 2011 Google Science Communications Fellows meeting focusing in particular on climate change communications. The three participating scientists, working with WRI’s Kelly Levin, were Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, Brian Helmuth of the University of South Carolina, and Paul Higgins of the American Meteorological Society.

They put together three-minute webcam talks, did a video telephone interview with slides, and spoke at WRI headquarters, using a whiteboard to illustrate key points.

And the winner is? The whiteboard presentation, with 68 percent of the votes, totaling around 1,035, followed by the conversation (27 percent and 415 votes) and the webcam talk (5 percent and 81 first-place votes). For more on the results, see these details.

But don’t take those vote counts too seriously, Levin and her WRI colleagues and the involved scientists explained during a June 19 webinar describing the whole experiment.

“To be sure, it was not a perfectly designed study,” they acknowledged: the video formats were not presented in a randomized order; those volunteer voters were forced to vote for one presentation or another, and not given the option to pick and choose preferred elements from among the three formats; and the voters themselves were clearly a self-selected group — far more interested in and committed to climate change learning than the public at large, for instance. And not broadly representative of key constituencies such as policymakers, the media, the corporate community, etc.

“A lot of imperfections,” Levin openly acknowledged, and the scientists pointed out there was no way for them to detect body languages or get other feedback from their audiences while making their presentations.

In addition, with its entirely proper focus on climate science, the experiment does little to inform those thinking more and more that the real climate change communications conundrum (four Cs?) increasingly revolves around cultural, socio-economic, political, and “beliefs and values” issues rather than around scientific evidence, verifications, and other seemingly arcane nuances.

“Climate science is not going to change hearts and minds alone,” Levin said in response to a question. But if the science can be more effectively communicated, “we might increase the chances for some incorporation into the media,” for example. In addition, the presentation experiment might show ways for giving the faceless nature of climatology a “more personal” feeling … like the face of a real scientist.

Higgins said he agreed but values “the importance and value of understanding” and of having “the best available knowledge and understanding” even if, in effect, it’s like making your kids eat their vegetables. Citing the “big polarization” and politically charged nature of climate change, Higgins emphasized that the fundamental climate science is “entirely nonpolitical” and said a wide range of risk management policy choices can serve-up something-for-everyone — “so many flavors and options.” He held out some hope that improved communications on climate science can “help take the heat off the science” and focus more attention on ways to manage climate risks.

A PDF of the webinar presentation slideshow is available here.

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