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Editorial: Communicating in an atmosphere hostile to science
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Communicating in an atmosphere hostile to science
Editorial: Communicating in an atmosphere
hostile to science
- Wrong: “We don’t know which way the oil slick will spread.
The weather in this region is unpredictable, and it interacts with several
localized and regional currents that also affect the direction of water movement
both on the surface and in deeper layers. So the slick could end up traveling
in any direction.”
- Right: “The wind in this area blows mostly from the west, and is
currently pushing the oil slick towards the Florida coastline. If the wind
moves around to the north, which happens a few times per year, it will push
the slick out to sea and Florida will be spared. We don’t know whether
that will happen, but we’ll monitor the situation and keep everyone
- Learn to think in sound bites: Instead of trying to present a closely
reasoned argument that takes 5 or 10 minutes to explain, and seeing only
30 seconds of that message (usually the wrong 30 seconds) preserved and disseminated,
we must present only the 30 seconds that we want everyone to receive. Additional
information should be presented in similarly digestible sound bites.
- Provide written backup (press releases, handouts, white papers, etc.)
for our message, and give the media permission to reuse them. Some journalists
will simply copy what we’ve provided rather than trying to impose their
own spin on the message. Others will at least have something to provide a
reality check for their understanding.
- Strive for credibility: Hesitation, uncertainty, and muddled answers that
try to cover our collective ass in case we guess wrong all undermine credibility.
Having identified the sound bite, deliver it with full confidence, and if
you’re given more time, support it with evidence. If you’re given
even more time, be willing to discuss only the elements of the information
that are least likely to be misunderstood and miscommunicated. But never
lie or attempt to convey certainty when nobody knows the answer.
- Remember the message’s emotional content: Speaking in the persona
of the cold, stereotypical scientist, complete with lab coat, is doomed from
the start. Always choose a charismatic, charming speaker who can smile honestly
(if appropriate) or convincingly show their human concern for their audience
even in a crisis, and give them freedom to be human: let them laugh, frown,
or look scared, as appropriate. In short, establish an emotional connection
with the audience rather than a purely logical–rational connection.
Succeeding despite these obstacles
My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:
Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.
©2004–2013 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved