For the final installment of In Conversation, I sat down with science communicator and my long-time mentor Olle Bergman – Swedish freelance writer and communication trainer. I met Olle at a TEDx conference in early 2018 and after a brief conversation about blogging and communicating science for the public, he took me under his wing, inviting me to join the team around Crastina – a networking platform for science people interested in communication.
Olle is one of the most enlightening people I’ve known, literally and figuratively. Every time you have a call with Olle, it unintentionally spirals into a meandering conversation and you come out of it having learnt something new about human psychology, communication or Swedish culture. The world, as Olle sees it, is very colourful and as I searched for one last person to feature in this series, I thought, “why not someone as friendly and reflecting as Olle?”.
In this interview, we chatted about how Olle became the science communicator he is today, how he tries to never be boring, his upcoming book projects (very exciting!), and almost everything in between. Fun Fact: while we were on this call, Olle was taking a long walk in the forest areas surrounding his small town in Sweden, and occasionally, greeting anyone he crossed paths with.
How did you become the science communicator that you are today? How were you inspired to inspire others to get their ideas across?
This question takes us back to the 80s, when I was a young boy studying science in high school. Both my parents were doctors. It was obvious to me that science was cool and interesting and useful and important, and it was also obvious to me to go down this path. However, I also became increasingly interested in literature, and I found my teacher, Helmer Lång, very inspiring. He was strikingly committed to his subject, and he made the entire class see the beauty and greatness of literature. That was when I first started writing and I began with poetry. In retrospect, this early writing was very immature. But that changed after my military service – I truly grew wiser during that one year of conscription. Isn’t it interesting how your personality settles down when you’re in your mid-twenties?
Anyway, I was this young man who loved writing and who loved science and I decided that I wanted to be a bridge builder. On one hand, I thought about studying medicine, but on the other hand I wanted to be someone who explained the sciences so I chose to study chemistry at the Faculty of Engineering, Lund University. I felt (and still feel) like chemistry lay perfectly in between biology and physics.
After I graduated, I was drafted into a lab – it’s a whole other story we would need to frame – but I spent three years as a research assistant and even became a Ph.D. student. And that’s when I burnt out. So, instead of doing communications after my Ph.D., I took a shortcut to a communication career. My first position was as an assistant medical editor at the Swedish National Encyclopaedia and I haven’t looked back since. I eventually joined a medicine tech company – first as an international education coordinator and later as a tech and PR writer at corporate communications.
The only formal communication training I have had was an evening course in journalism at Lund University – otherwise, it’s always been a learn-as-you-go thing.
You’ve mentioned [on your website] that one of the universal principles to use to make communication more effective is to “never be boring!”. How do you make sure you’re never boring or what you’re teaching is never boring?
In all my years as a chemist, as a writer and a communicator, I have noticed that there is a lack of a good definition of what the word “interesting” actually means. It often ends up in a circular definition! But what actually makes people turn their attention to something? Well, if there is no connection to their prior knowledge, the stuff you present will never hook them. This means that you too must have knowledge of something before you can muster any interest in it.
I have a technique that can probably be described like this: when I approach something, I look for similarities with other things. Can I compare it to something that people already know? It is important to develop analogies and metaphors. The use of metaphors goes far beyond culture – I believe this is how the brain works: we all see the world in patterns, we look for one thing in other things. It can also be very effective to demonstrate a contrast between the high and the low.
I also think to be interesting you have to have courage, you know? If you are too afraid of taking risks, no one will remember you. It’s like Monte Carlo – higher risks, higher gain. You can use stand-up comedy as an example – the higher risks you take while making jokes, the bigger the success if you succeed, but also the higher the fall if you fail. But you need that courage – you have to want to take the risks.
As a writer, a scientist and a science communicator, do you believe that your work lies where science and art meet? What is your experience working at the cusp of art and science?
I will illustrate my answer with an example. In a workshop I was conducting a few weeks ago, there were twelve chemistry Ph.D. students and some of them were working with nano-structures. One of them was studying something called a “tactoid”. And the most incredible thing was that she realised how catchy the concept of “tactoid” sounds, and that there definitely is something artistic about the cool images her research produces. It is really nice to see a generation that doesn’t set up boundaries between science and art – they already know the two fields are inseparable!
Science and art on their own are always limited, but when we combine them, we have a more powerful framework of understanding the world around us – and then we are finally getting somewhere! With a scientific approach to art and vice versa, we can reach new territories. There is a lot to explore, to understand, to feel and to work with: this represents my thoughts about the power of connecting science and art.
You’ve been writing a book! What is it about?
Actually, I have three book projects going on at the moment – one communication handbook, one popular history book about The Frontier culture in USA during the 19th century, and finally the one I think you are referring to: a poetry book called Pectoris or the infinite sadness of the alienated engineer. It started writing itself in the 90’s while I was working in an industrial setting … my first sketches in Swedish are made sometime around then. It is almost a 30 year book project!
Do you have a publishing date for it?
I don’t know yet, to be honest. I am very happy that the manuscript exists, but I am in no hurry to finish the book project. I could put it into the hands of a publishing company, but I think I prefer to publish it myself. DIY publishing is very easy these days, it gives you better control and you can keep more of the earnings (if there are any!).
In the process of writing this book, how has your artistic perception collided with your scientific expertise?
A med tech company is where science is being applied for the good of mankind. I had a practical help from my scientific knowledge. I wanted to write about my old company but move it away from nephrology and renal care. I wanted to be more natural about it, so, I shifted to a more poetic outlook; I tried to not directly refer to the scientific things such as a dialysis machine and blood, but only give shards of information.
You specialise in “medical, technical and scientific writing aimed at a popular audience”. What, in your opinion and experience, is the most important thing to remember when writing about science for the public?
My first recommendation would be to learn the craft [of writing] and not cheat; you need to be a good craftsman to make a difference! Make sure to connect to the reader and that what you’re writing is relevant to the reader at all. Of course, you should use stylistic writing tools, but you should never overuse them. Never let fancy writing come between yourself and what you want to say. A lot of the time, plain English and will be more than enough. Finally, at the end of the writing process, you should read the text and think about its relevance in 10 years’ time. Will it age with dignity, or have you jumped the bandwagon, using themes, angles and expressions which are trendy at the moment?
What would your words of advice to an aspiring science communicator be?
Make sure you understand what you are writing about and that your personal understanding of the subject is complete. If your explanations are vague or poorly structured, you probably need to study your subject in more detail.
I also have a special technique: I make sure my interviews are more like conversations than interrogations. First of all, this will help the interviewee loosening up and making them forget that they are in an interview. Secondly, an interesting, two-way conversation where you add your own reflections and analyses will inspire them to be more creative. You, Ushashi, should never be afraid to do that!
Finally, Olle about himself:
I guess I am a person who plays many roles: I am the father of five, a small-business man, a non-fiction and fiction author, a regular sportsperson et cetera. I am very proud of my family’s lifestyle, which is small town life rather than urban life. My wife Lotten (who is also a writer) and I made the best decision 20 years ago when we settled in Eskilstuna. In a small town, you are not distracted by a lot of things going on around you. This makes it possible to direct your attention to those things you want to engage with and that has played a very significant role in my life.
I have a lot of energy all the time; my brain is buzzing with ideas every second of the day, and when the batteries are low, I become an introvert. I always want something interesting to direct my attention at; this pushes me to constantly try new things or to learn more about things I already know. I think to have a healthy aging process, I must keep learning. I love reading; I try to read at least one book a week and keep the genre as eclectic as possible. I also enjoy music in every possible form – learning, playing, and listening.