From June 5th-8th, I had the good fortune of attending the annual Canadian Science Writers’ Association (CSWA) Conference in Toronto. It was my first CSWA event, and it will most definitely not be my last.
While the first and last days of the conference opened and closed with tours of Toronto research facilities, the days in the middle were jam packed with lectures, panel discussions, and even a session of scientist speed dating.
One of the more popular sessions of the weekend, titled, “Is it Working? Assessing your Social Media Endeavours”, was a panel discussion that covered the merits of different social media outlets and how you can use analytics and feedback to see what’s working best for you. As you might have guessed, the conversation centred mostly around heavy hitters, Facebook and Twitter.
While there are different drawbacks and positives to using both, all panelists agreed that more than anything a sense authenticity and simply having good content were more important than any social media strategy you might come up with.
Addressing the issue of authenticity, panelists agreed that companies need to give up their fear of embracing their employees’ personal brands, and instead leverage the personal connection built when clients engage with a person online rather than a corporation.
On the Facebook front, attendees were warned to post better quality content less frequently. Unlike other social media outlets, when your followers don’t engage with your content, Facebook’s algorithm will actually decrease the chances that they will see your next post at all. In fact, panelists agreed that it was best to think of Facebook as a paid media channel rather than a true social media outlet.
Later that afternoon, the session The Science of Science Communication addressed issues of gaining audience trust and attention, as well as the prevalence of junk science in the media. One large issue with science communication is that while scientists loooove facts, throwing facts at people is not necessarily the best way to teach them about science, especially not if you are aiming to change current beliefs or behaviours. To change attitudes, it is vital to appeal to a person’s set of entrenched values.
While for me the rest of the conference was a bit of a blur of shaking hands, conversing with some really intelligent and interesting people from the science writing community, and hearing about incredibly fascinating research, there are a few themes that were prevalent throughout the conference and really stuck with me.
Authenticity – Not just in the social media session, but in just about every other session as well, this issue of authenticity came up again and again. Not to say that science writers lack authenticity, but when engaging with the public about information that they might not be familiar with, or might even find intimidating or off-putting, that extra bit of personal engagement is even more important. Finding the personal story that goes along with the science, and connecting with people on an emotional and human level makes the content relatable, and therefore a million times easier for your average reader to engage with.
Failure – While there’s a propensity in today’s world to “always put your best foot forward”, talking about failure can help your reader to see the whole journey rather than seeing your story as an isolated incident of instant success. Sharing failure also goes a long way towards building on that first point of authenticity. On a more personal level, it was mentioned again and again that tracking and learning from your own failures is the best and fastest way to move forward and grow.
Overall, I would give the 2014 CSWA Conference an A+. It was a great balance of opportunities to learn and network, covering a breadth and depth of content that meant there was a little bit of something for everyone.
I’m very much looking forward to attending again next year, when the conference will be held in Saskatoon.