The worldwide outbreak of COVID-19 has left an indelible mark on 2020, one that will go far beyond when the last person is vaccinated. It has forced the global population to get up to speed quickly—understand and evaluate the risk, make judgements about one’s own behavior, and adapt to ‘new normals’ from family gatherings and dining out to teaching students and traveling for work or pleasure. It’s been a herculean lift to educate everyone about what is at stake, and in large part the world is responding. Key to that effort has been smart science communication.

For those of us interested in sharpening our science communication tools, lessons from this pandemic can be the grindstone to our blade. From reminders of best communication practices to illustrative examples that convey complex principles succinctly, COVID-19 has reminded us of some important SciComm lessons.

Establish a goal – why are you communicating anyway?

Experts on the novel coronavirus aren’t just sharing what they know for fun. Instead, they have a concrete goal underpinning their communications. They want us to do something. In many cases, they want us to social distance. In other cases, their goal is to establish the virus as a serious problem to particular communities. Establishing a goal from the outset of your communications is far too often overlooked, and doing so will cut through the noise and help you focus on what you want to say.

Different messages are needed for different audiences

Related to establishing goals, different communities need different messages. With coronavirus, the message to young people, who may only show mild symptoms if they get it, is that they may transmit the virus to older, more vulnerable loved ones. For populations at higher risk, the message may be the critical importance of sheltering-in-place. And to communities who have yet to feel the effects of the disease, it may be illustrating successful pathways towards not becoming a hotspot. Think about your audience and what they need before you engage; your messages may be different.

It’s not about sharing everything you know

People would become immediately overwhelmed if scientists dumped all of their knowledge about pandemics in one sitting. Same goes for knowledge about marine snails, ice cores or tree rings. Lead with the bottom line—why does this matter? This allows them to see the value of your work to them and will pique their interest, opening the door for a deeper discussion. That’s where all your knowledge and the more nuanced aspects of your work come in and shine.

Don’t repeat what’s not true; instead, reinforce what is true

Lots of false information has been circulated related to the novel coronavirus. Our inclination as scientists is to jump into the fray when we hear misinformation or disinformation, and address the falsehoods head-on. In reality, often we are simply continuing to draw more attention to the wrong information. Instead, talk about what’s true and what we do know. By not giving wrong information any credence, you help remove it from discourse and point the conversation in the right direction.

Powerful illustrations and examples go a long way

No doubt, it can be tough to winnow complex ideas into simple graphics or soundbites. And in some cases, it’s just not possible. But a few examples from this pandemic have illustrated the power of good, clean and informative illustrations. Terms like Flattening the Curve are now part of our lexicon, and some of us will look at Philadelphia and St. Louis a little differently. Great examples that illustrate potentially complex ideas, like those below, can do wonders for a public trying to figure out which way is up.

It sounds simple, but be human

One thing scientists have going for them is they are more trusted as a group than many others. But that doesn’t mean people immediately relate. Remember to bring that human side of you along when communicating about your work—that side that’s also a mom or dad, sibling or friend. Speak from the heart and not just the head. This shows empathy, builds trust and allows you to connect with people’s values, fears and concerns that are a part of day-to-day life. Bringing your human side to the conversation will help your message stick.

If you find yourself wanting to talk more about science communication, or if you have a unique opportunity coming up and would like some 1:1 communication coaching, we are happy to help! Please reach out to

This article draws on our own science communication work at the College of the Environment, as well as recent sessions at Science Talk’s Annual Conference and Liz Neeley’s article in The Atlantic “How to talk about the coronavirus.”