The following multi-part blog series was inspired by a conversation among a few friends about scientific communication, the current state of education in science and scientific integrity. To adequately cover such a broad topic, I’ve chosen to break it up into smaller, connected parts.
Happy 2016! My New Year's resolution is to finish up what I promised you back in July of last year: to publish a second entry in this blog series.
In the first entry of this series, I discussed scientific integrity and its vital role in changing the atmosphere of mistrust in corporate science. In this post, I’d like to focus on another component critical to improving the perception of corporate science: clear and honest communication with the general public.
As scientists, it is foremost in our training and perhaps even in our nature to obsess over details, for it is in the details where we find the observations that lead us to that “Eureka!” moment (or more likely that “huh?” moment) that can change the world. Yet, when it is time to tell this story, we fail to drop the scientific details and jargon. We further compound this problem by forgetting that most in our audience don’t always have a deep understanding of our field, and we fail to bring the conversation down to an understandable level. When we have the occasion to talk about our science with friends or family, we talk as if we’re giving a seminar or a presentation at a scientific conference. It is little wonder that we are often greeted with blank stares when talking about our work. Those of us who work in industry are faced with the added burden of secrecy in the name of intellectual property. The very nature of much of our work cannot be freely discussed lest we jeopardize the commercial potential of our discoveries. This leads to accusations that we must be hiding something sinister (see part 1 of my series for more on “shills”).
If we are to change the perception of corporate science, it is imperative that we change the way we communicate. We must become better storytellers. Humans naturally relate to stories, good stories.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to participate in a storytelling workshop. The most shocking thing I learned was that the content of a story is important to only 7% of the audience. What matters most to audiences? The CHARACTER of the presenter; this is what is remembered by 60% of the audience. (That’s related to part one of my blog series, which focused on scientific integrity.)
It’s important to note, too, that a significant portion of the audience – 33% - cares most about the actual craft of telling the story – how we tell it.
A good story has the following parts:
- Beginning – context is given, characters are set.
- Conflict – without this, there is no story.
- Struggle – what will I do?
- Victory – literal or figurative.
- Resolution – something has changed.
When you think about recent incidents involving the most vocal anti-science advocates, you can see they are good storytellers. People opposed to vaccination caused great harm by using pseudoscience to pull at the heartstrings of moms. They gain credibility with their target audience by making an emotional connection through the parents’ concern for their children. Many in the anti-genetically modified organisms (GMO) movement have used the same connections between mothers and their children. They played to parents’ concern over child nutrition and health to advance a pseudoscience agenda. After gaining the trust of the like-minded parents, they legitimize the struggle over the safety of their children, and present a path for victory against the corporations out to harm their children or control their food choices. Anti-science advocates craft GREAT, albeit scientifically incorrect, stories.
We lose the battle when we try to counteract their great stories with what amounts to nothing more than a technical seminar or a conference presentation. We MUST learn to craft great stories about our science, on a level the general public can easily understand if we want to change the public discourse about science.
Of course, these great stories make the biggest impact when presented to a scientifically literate audience, yet another major challenge. Promoting scientific literacy will be the focus of the final part of this series.
Jeff Seale is a Science Fellow at Monsanto where he has worked for 18 years building world-class protein engineering platforms and developing the next generation of science leaders. Outside of work he enjoys watching his children's artistic and athletic endeavors, sailing with friends and working to end extreme global poverty with the ONE Campaign. (The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Monsanto.)