Approximate reading time: 3 minutes 50 seconds
A few years ago my husband and myself went to Stockholm to celebrate our wedding anniversary. It was May, Stockholm was full of flowers, we stayed in a real 19th century ship turned into a hotel and, for the first time since our children were born, there were only us. It was a magical trip on many levels. However, what I remember the most of that trip was our visit to the Nobel museum. I was impressed by the life stories of Nobel laureates. Some of them had to fight hard for their right to make science including fighting against their own parents. But the absolute highlight of the visit was a movie about graphene discovery. I can’t tell you how long I was sitting on a little bench and watching the movie. I was captivated by the magic of science to the point I completely lost track of time.
When the movie ended, I realised to my embarrassment that I was crying. No need to tell you it became a family legend. My husband makes fun of me to this day whenever I’m moved watching a movie (any movie). It seems that normally people don’t cry at movies about science.
The truth is that secretly I feel proud of the emotions that the story of graphene triggered in me. The beauty of science, of the world around us, of the human mind and the way we slowly unwrap the secrets of the universe will always keep me breathless.
When doing some ‘field research’ to understand the role of science communication in academia I realised that communicating science doesn’t seem a part of researchers’ core work. Of course, there are amazing since communicators out there but my research got me an impression that science communication is always an activity considered a nice-to-have but in no way indispensable for the researchers’ work and career hence the least priority.
Moreover, it seems that becoming a science communicator is an extremely demanding process for a scientist. It requires not only a dramatic turnaround in methods and habits but even reframing the fundamentals of the scientific way of reasoning. And, what is the most important, it seems almost impossible without a huge dose of idealism and sense of mission as science communication doesn’t seem an activity you are immediately rewarded for in terms of career, recognition or even measurable impact.
There was, however, a pattern in my ‘research’. Whenever a researcher had some experience in working both for academia and for decision-makers (such as policy-makers or high level managers) the role of science communication in their eyes automatically raised. Even though it is still not easy for a trained brain to abandon the usual way of analysing and presenting facts which reflects in many ways on their communication practice. The most important being that, as a scientist, you may think that people base their opinions on facts. You may believe that providing people with correct and properly proven information is enough to make them change their minds. When you meet people who are getting your research wrong (or are not getting it at all), you may think that the only problem is lack of necessary knowledge and you may have a tendency to believe that they would change their minds if they only knew.
Unfortunately, the truth is much more complex or much more easy, depending on how you look at it.
Most people don’t base their world view on facts.
On the contrary, they are quite good in basing it on emotions and rationalising their emotions afterwards. Even scientists are not free from this vice although many believe to be immune to it.
It’s estimated that in the process of decision-making in about 80% of cases emotions will win over facts. It leaves us with only 20% of decisions based on logic.
Therefore, as iconoclastic as it sounds it would be beneficial to your research communication if you tried to base it on emotions rather than facts. Of course, it doesn’t mean you should make your communication disconnected from the facts. It only means that your facts should come in disguise as a sort of a Trojan horse.
You can use facts to influence emotions in the context of science communication in two ways:
1) By using a tool, the content or rhetoric that will trigger an emotion in people, be it joy, amazement, curiosity, anger or fear;
2) By addressing people’s fears, needs or convictions through understanding and creating a relationship that makes people want to listen to you, understand and act.
Both ways are potentially successful depending on the context and the purpose of your communication. However, you should also take into account potential pitfalls.
Triggering a negative emotion is like opening a Pandora’s box.
Negative emotions are very powerful and quite commonly motivate people to act. Unfortunately, the actions they take are not always the ones you would wish and they are difficult to stop. It is relatively easy to trigger fear or anger but if you play with fire, you get burned.
From my experience, it’s much harder but much more beneficial to trigger positive emotions and soothe the negative ones.
The mechanism Number 1 will be successful if you manage to turn joy or excitement into a long lasting relationship or inspiration for your audience to get to know your research further.
The mechanism number 2 is about creating a relationship based on trust. Trust comes as a result of some emotional or factual benefits that you provided people with. Building trust requires time and is impossible if in your communication you focus rather on what you want to say instead of focusing on how you could be useful.
Communication is mostly about listening to people and reacting to what you have heard.
I am not saying you need to become an emotion wizard and bring people to cry about your research the way I cried about graphene. Well, at least not every time. Just try to use human language (as opposed to scientific) when you speak to your audience and you will soon notice positive results.