Lesley Hanes | June 4, 2020
Effective science communication empowers people with knowledge that would otherwise be out of their reach. During a pandemic, this understanding helps to keep people safe from harm.
When Covid-19 emerged, the world was flooded with information about coronaviruses and pandemics. This anxiety-provoking deluge came through multiple channels 24/7, and created a giant swishy sea.
With their fear responses partially or fully triggered, most people needed to quickly find trustworthy information — information they could easily understand and act on to protect themselves.
Science communicators played a pivotal role in helping people navigate the swirling seas and seek safer shores.
Along with the challenges of communicating about a new virus in a rapidly evolving situation, science communicators had to find a way to be heard above the ‘infodemic’ — the swathes of false and misleading information spreading rapidly around the globe.
This post looks at one of the best examples of science communication about Covid-19 that we’ve seen, and explains why we think it works so well.
Writer and animated comic creator Toby Morris of The Spinoff collaborated with microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles to produce several outstanding pieces of science communication about the new coronavirus.
While it was hard to pick just one, we’ll look at ‘Viruses vs everyone: Three simple points about the science of Covid-19’. We’ll look at the techniques the creators used to distil complex scientific information and make it easy for the public to understand.
The comic is broken into three main parts. Science communicators call this the ‘three-point structure’. To create this structure, you focus on the three things you want your audience to remember. Then you organise your content around those three main points.
Sticking to a small number of main points helps readers take in information more easily, and remember it. You can see this three-point structure in the comic’s title and it tells us, ‘This won’t be hard to understand’.
Effective science communicators think about their audience’s needs, including:
The information in the comic is pitched at people with little knowledge, who need accurate information to understand how to protect themselves.
The comic format helps the content to look inviting and accessible to laypeople. Using an online medium and including GIFs makes the comic attractive for sharing on social media (where it’ll reach more people who need it).
Building on your audience’s existing knowledge is an effective technique because it reduces their effort to understand new information.
For example, most of us have heard of bacteria and know they’re small, so the creators build on this understanding to help us get a sense of the size of virus particles.
Viral particles are tiny. They’re a thousand times smaller than bacteria, which are already super tiny.
Once we’ve taken that size comparison in, we’re ready for another comparison with something we already know — the size of a drop of seawater. This next comparison builds on the one before to help us understand how abundant virus particles are.
And they’re super abundant: You can often find 10 million viruses in a single drop of seawater.
Layering is another technique that helps build our understanding with minimal effort. Understanding the first concept prepares us for understanding the next concept, and so on.
For example, the creators use three different scales: the microscopic, the individual, and the collective. Once we’re familiar with the microscopic scale, we’re ready to zoom out to the individual scale. When we’ve understood how a virus may affect us as individuals, we’re prepared to think about how it may affect everyone (the collective scale).
With our understanding of the different scales and the support of animated visuals showing how the virus spreads, we’re able to connect the dots literally and figuratively when the creators use an analogy that compares us with cells.
Zoomed out further, the pattern of how the virus spreads looks similar to the microscale. We’re like cells, waiting to be infected.
For the visual elements of science communication to work well, they need to:
‘Viruses vs everyone’ gets a tick for all of the points above. The animated elements are absorbing without being gimmicky, and they complement the main messages well.
Important health messages are woven into the content. As our understanding of the science builds, the messages land with greater power until finally we’re ready for the key takeaway message: ‘Working collectively, we’re powerful’.
The science understanding we gain helps us to protect our health, and everyone else’s too. Toby and Siouxsie — we salute you!
This data interactive from The Guardian shows ‘…how subtle changes in social behaviour or the level of contagiousness of the virus can affect the battle to stop its spread’. The content also helps laypeople understand R0 — the basic reproduction number.
‘Coronavirus, Explained’ combines visual content, expert interviews, and historical comparisons to communicate important scientific and health information about Covid-19 and virus transmission.
The explanations of how immunity, vaccines, and lockdown measures work are great examples of building up people’s knowledge one concept at a time.
The content creators behind New Zealand’s official site for information about Covid-19 did a splendid job of conveying the science behind the public health measures in place for each level of the pandemic. This poster distils the science down to simple and memorable messages that are easy to act on.
Washing hands kills the virus — A4 (PDF, 1.4 MB)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel drew on her science background to give a widely praised talk explaining virus transmission rates, and then how they affect hospital capacity and public health measures.
Thanks to the Wiggles, parents had a hand to explain social distancing to their little ones, especially why they couldn’t go near or visit people as they normally would.