This roundup of posts from this blog shows my quirky, dry and occasionally grim sense of humor.

My sense of humor is one of the reasons I began this blog. I believe there should be a place in the world for science jokes. And since I rarely make science jokes at work – I stick to business during working hours – I make them on weekends.

Humor can be professionally risky. But most of the feedback I have received on these posts has been positive.

Here are my favorite posts from the humor section of this blog:

A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the CDC zombie apocalypse blog post.)

How to Bring Your Newsletter Back from the Dead – This Halloween post is based on my experiences reading and reviving newsletters.

The Powerpuff Approach to Energy Efficiency – This post is about an energy education program featuring heroes who look like a multicultural, coed version of the Powerpuff Girls. These heroes fight to save power, of course.

Zilowatt’s energy efficiency superheroes (Source: Zilowatt website)

What Science Communication and Cooking Have in Common – Telling science stories can be like writing down recipes. Read this post to see why.

Why a Zombie Apocalypse Story Helped the CDC – Does it surprise you that people would rather learn how to prepare for a zombie apocalypse than get ready for a hurricane?

How to Add Zest to Your Website – You, too, can spice up your website and add a slice of lemon.

The Real Science News Cycle – In this post, I reinterpret a cartoon from Ph.D. Comics.


Don’t forget that the sun will turn into a black hole, sucking the Earth and the Moon into an invisible abyss, unless you follow me on Twitter and like my Facebook page.

Are your audiences reading your newsletter? Or are they using it to make Halloween costumes? Are they recycling it into shellacked paper coasters? If it’s electronic, are they deleting it? Questions like these preoccupy communications specialists.

The book Your Attention, Please describes how it’s becoming difficult to attract sustained interest from readers. Before the Internet, people were likely to take their time reading mail. Now, we’re deluged with hundreds of e-mails. Many of them are newsletters.

How can you bring your moribund newsletter to life and make it stand out from the mass of spam and other undesirable messages? Here are a few guidelines to help you revive your copy. (A great way to bring your newsletter back from the dead is to hire me as a consultant. I specialize in bringing science-related newsletters to life.)

Zombie
A zombie peeks out from behind a long newsletter. (Actually, this graphic is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s zombie apocalypse blog post.)

Your newsletter’s vital signs may fizzle if:

  1. Your newsletter is focused on your organization, not your readers. One reason your newsletters are gathering dust may be that they are not speaking to the needs and interests of your audiences. Think about how your organization can be a good conversationalist. Don’t be the person at the cocktail party who bores everyone by holding forth about uninteresting topics. Cut out the content that won’t interest your audiences. If it’s necessary to keep it for other reasons, bury it behind a link.
  2. Your content is too text-heavy. Are you requiring readers to wade through long paragraphs of text to find buried nuggets of valuable information? They probably won’t. When reading online, your audiences will skim the content. Use short paragraphs, straightforward language, and links. Use bold font to emphasize key points.
  3. Your newsletter is not in the right medium. Do your audiences adore Pinterest but ignore snail mail? Do they avoid social media in favor of sifting through their email? If you choose the right delivery medium for your newsletter, that can increase readers’ interest.
  4. You need to work on your messaging and engagement strategies. If you’re promoting events that no one attends or recommending actions that no one takes, you may have a messaging problem. You may not be communicating the benefits of taking action. The actions may be too difficult for your readers. If you provide easy-to-take actions and communicate their benefits clearly, you may get better results.
  5. Your most interesting content is buried. Where are those bits of gold – the most valuable information in your existing newsletter? Dig them out and bring them to the beginning. Think of your newsletter as a newspaper article. Journalists typically begin an article with the most important information, if they’re using the inverted pyramid style of writing.

Keep your newsletter simple, useful, concise and interesting. Your readers shouldn’t have to get out a shovel to dig out your most valuable content. If you make your readers’ lives easier, they will appreciate it. Redesigning your approach to newsletter writing can turn a yawn into a smile. Even dead newsletters can be revived.

data cake
Image by EpicGraphic

Is it dinner time yet? This series of cake photos, re-blogged from EpicGraphic, shows the process of making data into knowledge. It starts with eggs and flour and ends with an empty plate.

This graphic shows the importance of putting icing on the cake by presenting information attractively. It also shows the value of turning raw data into useful information before placing it in front of one’s audience.

There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes in making data viable, valuable and visually appealing.

The Powerpuff Girls have decided to take on an energy efficiency challenge. Well… not exactly. I’m sorry to say there won’t be an episode showing the Powerpuff Girls breaking light bulbs and replacing them with CFLs.

Fortunately, since the Powerpuff Girls are busy taking leaps in the air instead of promoting eco-friendly behavior, a California nonprofit, Zilowatt, is designing energy conservation education for grade school students. The New York Times profiled the program recently. The article featured the superhero graphic below.

Zillowatt's superheroes
Zilowatt's superheroes (Source: Zilowatt's website)

This image implies that the grade school students are Powerpuff-like superheroes – saving electric power and having fun at the same time. This group of kids of varying ethnic backgrounds and appearances is using energy for positive purposes.

SmartMeme and Adbusters take a similar approach to existing ads and media frames – except that they dismantle their messages instead of building on them.

Although entertainment-based education isn’t new to social marketers, approaches like Zilowatt’s are relatively unusual. Of course, saving energy is a serious process and should never be adulterated by using humor, putting cute stickers on CFL boxes, or writing tongue-in-cheek blog posts about social marketing.

I forwarded this comic about science news to a journalist the other day. But then I took a second look at it.

At first glance, the process seems simple. A scientist unearths valuable, complex information. The university PR department simplifies it… and the story goes downhill. At the end, the scientist’s grandmother is wearing a hat to protect herself from his discovery.

The Science News Cycle: Ph.D. Comics
The Science News Cycle. © Jorge Cham

After reading the comic, I realized I disagree with it. Often, in my experience, the process looks like this:

  1. The scientist’s grandmother already has an opinion.
  2. The scientist, publicist and reporters see their work as a one-way transfer of information. They don’t consider how audiences with preexisting opinions will respond to the story.
  3. The bloggers seek news that will confirm their preexisting views.
  4. The scientist’s grandmother shakes her head. Her belief has been reinforced. She goes online to buy a hat.
  5. At the end of the story, the scientist goes to ask a federal agency for funding. The agency leaders were appointed by politicians whom his grandmother elected. The scientist hopes the agency will make the right decision.
From the scientist’s point of view, the translation failed. From my perspective, the scientist and the publicist missed a chance to change the preexisting beliefs of their audiences. If there are misconceptions out there already, putting facts on the table may not be enough to change public perceptions of science.

“Why does it seem so taboo to be funny when talking about sustainability?” Larry Washington asks in the Shelton Group environmental marketing blog.

I think about this question often. Because I’ve spent so much time with science professionals, I have some insights about why humor might seem jarring to them.

When scientists meet marketers, they tend to be cautious and skeptical. Scientists understand that marketers can sell their ideas, but the suggestions jolt them out of their comfort zones. If the marketers don’t produce numbers that show their outreach ideas will work, the scientists may discount the suggestions.

Scientists are cautious for a good reason; they have a great deal to lose. They value their professional reputations very highly. If someone has worked for 10 years to complete a Ph.D. and has gone on to build a portfolio of publications, that person is not going to want to throw away the credibility he or she has worked so hard to build.

Scientists work hard to construct their reputations. So asking a scientist to put humor on a website can be like asking an architect to put an explosive under a newly completed building without knowing whether it will detonate or not.

Red button
Marketers should communicate to scientists that humor and other expressive forms of writing can be used in ways that are both professional and credible.

Although humor can increase public interest in science, it can backfire and reduce scientists’ credibility. In some settings, addressing this concern directly might help to resolve the problem. Involving scientists in the outreach process – for example, inviting them to tell stories, make podcasts, or participate in video projects – is another way to build support for nontraditional communication.

In person, scientists do appreciate humor – despite media stereotypes that say otherwise. They are often good storytellers, especially if they teach. But these stories don’t go into their public portfolios. Their official presence says, “Just the facts.”

Fear-based media messages are the nonprofit equivalent of canned PowerPoint presentations. They’re popular but often ineffective. Audiences don’t necessarily see avoiding risk as a persuasive justification for changing their behavior.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) turned this situation around by using humor. The post caught the attention of Fox, CNN and many other news sources. The Boston Globe reported the page received 30,000 hits in a single day.

How did the CDC change the story? Ali Khan, a scientist, saw readers weren’t paying enough attention to the fact sheets on hurricane preparedness. So he wrote a post about how to survive a zombie apocalypse. The strategies for surviving zombie apocalypses and hurricanes are remarkably similar.

Often, audiences would rather read People than prepare for hurricanes. What does that magazine offer that the CDC website rarely provides? It has stories with characters and visual interest. By telling a tongue-in-cheek story about zombie apocalypse survival, the CDC captured more attention than it would have in months of posting more serious content.

Coincidentally, the CDC followed some of the main principles of social marketing. Social marketers encourage audiences to take socially responsible actions by making those choices fun, easy and popular.

Health education materials can be extraordinarily useful; preparing for a hurricane is much more practical than reading People. But without social marketing, health professionals may find their programs have a limited reach. Population Media Center has used entertainment-based education to bring health messages to countries around the world.

The CDC’s willingness to innovate saved its socially valuable message from being buried in an unread fact sheet.

If you communicate about science, what stories are you willing to tell?

While preparing a stir-fry, I realized that I make an assumption in the kitchen which is very similar to one that people make about science communication.

Since I cook regularly, I know how to identify all the spices in the cabinet near my stove. And because I buy spices in bulk, most of the spice bottles are unlabeled.

If you’ve ever had the opportunity to leaf through a science article you couldn’t understand, you’ll see where I am going with this analogy.

Spices

The red spices on my shelf include Cajun spice, two types of paprika, and three varieties of curry. If house guests choose the wrong bottle, the results will not be what they expected. Even if they miss the strongest curry, I don’t think they would want to substitute Hungarian paprika for Cajun spice.

Mistakes in science communication can have worse effects than spoiling a dinner recipe. Often, people who are communicating about science make assumptions about how much audiences will understand. For example, I’ve seen the word “nanotechnology” used without a definition in many articles. A large fraction of the United States population doesn’t understand what this word means.

Finally, I often see the assumption that decision makers and experts in other fields will automatically be aware of issues in a science field – even though a MBA, for example, may not include courses that relate directly to nanotechnology.