How great communication can have a big impact– with Dr Siouxsie Wiles

How great communication can have a big impact– with Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Communicating complex ideas in plain language hasn’t always come easily to Dr Siouxsie Wiles. But it’s something she’s worked hard at throughout her career, and it propelled her into the media spotlight when COVID-19 struck. We talk to the 2021 New Zealander of the Year ahead of her keynote speech at the Future-Fit Aotearoa conference in September.

Sharing her research with ordinary people has always been an important driver for Wiles. As a microbiologist for the University of Auckland, her work is publicly funded either through taxes or philanthropy, and she feels a sense of responsibility to share her knowledge.

“I’ve always felt the public have a right to know what I do and that it’s my obligation to communicate in a way that people can understand.” 

For more than 15 years, Wiles has made a conscious effort to learn to communicate in different and better ways. It started with talking to school children and writing columns for Sciblogs, an online network of scientists in New Zealand.  

“My big thing has been to learn by doing. I’ve learned how to write in a less jargon-y way and be a bit more engaging. And that’s opened the door to all sorts of great things.

“I’ve been told many times throughout my career I should stop messing around with that media nonsense and get on with being a serious scientist, but to me it didn’t seem right. It was something I was becoming better and better at, it was something I could do in addition to being a scientist, and it was about helping people to understand the role that science plays in our lives.”

Wiles is the science commentator on Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon show, and a regular columnist for Stuff and The Spinoff. But it was when COVID-19 arrived that she became a key media spokesperson and a regular face in our living rooms.   

“When the pandemic hit it was like I’d been training for a marathon that I didn’t know I was going to have to run.”

Her work went global when she teamed up with illustrator Toby Morris to create comics for The Spinoff that explained to the general public how they could play their part in stopping the spread of the pandemic.  

“I had long admired his work, and I felt like we had the same underlying values, similar interests, and a similar view on the kind of country or world we wanted to live in.  

“I was trying to keep New Zealanders up to speed with how quickly things were happening and what the general tone of discussions were around the world, which is when epidemiologists started talking about this idea of ‘flatten the curve’.

“What I wanted to convey – and this is the case for all my writing really – is for people to feel empowered that they understand what their role is in all of this.”

Wiles suggested to her editor at The Spinoff that Morris might be able to help her get the key messages across.  

“Within an hour Toby and I were on the phone, and it became the start of something quite magical really.”   

Their flatten the curve graphic instantly went viral, receiving six million impressions on Twitter. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used it at a national press conference and it was shared by media outlets around the world, with one in the US calling it “the defining chart of the coronavirus”.

They have since created more than 40 illustrations and animations, including break the chain, to visually explain COVID-19 and how people can stop the spread.

Their work has been adapted and translated by governments and organisations and has even led to Morris working with the World Health Organisation.

So what’s the secret to great communication, and where should people start when they want to convey complicated ideas to ordinary people?

“This might be hard for some people to hear, but sometimes when you think your work is really complex and hard, you’re creating barriers that don’t really exist. You could easily break them down yourself by being a little more humble. I think there are stereotypes that people themselves play into that need to be busted.

“Communication is a two-way street. It’s about trying to create an understanding between both parties and you do that by having empathy and listening.

“You listen as much as you speak. That’s the key.”

Dr Siouxsie Wiles is a keynote speaker at the Future-Fit Aotearoa conference. Register now