Friday, May 18, 2012

Don't Be Mr. Smarty Pants

Don't Be Such a Scientist by Randy Olson is a good book that really is a must read for anyone who wants to communicate science successfully, especially well, uh, scientists.

I read it in the context of climate change.  In fact, I ran into another climate denier the other day.  My head hurt afterward, and humor was hard to find but Olson's book helped.

With over 40% of the population not believing in climate change, the communicators need help.

Olson implores scientists to go for the gut, for the visceral, rather than the cerebral.  It's about getting your message across not only in clear, concise, and accessible language but also with an understanding of your audience and understanding that successful communicators tell good stories.

The tidy book is chock full of numerous little stories, entertaining, often funny, but he is simply practicing what he preaches.  If there is one single takeaway it's: Tell good stories.  One way to do so is through art, such as a narrative in a short film or through a sculpture.

"Art stirs the heart, the gut, and even the loins. It motivates people. And that motivation can lead people to want to engage their brains. Which is when the scientist can go to work," Olson says.

Preach is a too strong a word, though. Olson does not preach, he explains, entertains, illustrates, and instructs.  He helps.  And refreshingly throughout, the urgency of the dire news out there -- the destruction of the ocean -- is there just below the surface of his playful, dry wit but not crushing the air from our lungs as is so often the case.

I'd go as far to say the humor is even a protection against all the bad news but I'm no psychologist.  It's easy to empathize, anyway.

Tom Hollihan, a communications professor, said "when it comes to mass communications it's as simple as two things: arouse and fulfill, first you arouse your audience (pique their interest) and then you fulfill their expectations."

Olson's story alone arouses and fulfills.  What an interesting path of life.  He earned his Ph.D at Harvard in marine biology and became a professor before moving to Hollywood for a second career as a filmmaker. He directed Flock of Dodos, a fun and surprising expose on creationists, and founded Shifting Baselines.

Shifting Baselines is a marine conservation advocacy organization that addresses the conceptual challenge around environmental degradation happening at such a slow pace (in human time frame) that one man's paradise is another man's sad remains of a once vibrant reef or ecosystem.  Check out his funny PSA on the lionfish, an invasive species wreaking havoc in the Atlantic. 

So telling good stories means to arouse and fulfill.  The third key point Olson makes is be likable -- don't be Mr Smarty Pants.  A smile and a non-condescending ear can go a long, long way to opening ears and minds.  Nobody likes a know it all so don't be that guy, no matter how much you know or think you know.  Start with listening, really listening to what they're saying.

If it sounds like self-help advice for scientists, there is an element of that but it's all good.  Chapter titles read like a list of advice: 

Don't be so cerebral
Don't be so literal minded
Don't be such a poor storyteller
Don't be so unlikeable
Be the voice of science

Perhaps lessons taken on the road from Olson's book will bring that festering number of deniers down.  Hope springs eternal. 

You can pick up Olson's book here or find it in your local library. 

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