Big ideas can be tough to communicate—especially for scientists, who often need to communicate complex concepts to a whole host of lay audiences. In their new book, Championing Science, Roger and Amy Aines draw from their extensive experience to offer guidance on how scientists can best socialize their work. Roger currently serves as Energy Program Chief Scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, while Amy is Chief Culture Strategist at Waterhouse Brands. Roger and Amy’s insights stand to benefit those from any industry who seek to share their own big ideas with the world.
Waterhouse Brands (WHB): Championing Science is the brainchild of a geochemist turned climate technologist and a tech-biotech communications expert. Would you describe the spark that led you both to this book?
Roger Aines (RA): It really started with me. Throughout my many years as a scientist, I’ve sat through a lot of meetings where my colleagues failed to get their ideas across for what were pretty fundamental reasons. I’ve mentored many of these scientists, and I eventually thought I needed to write it all down. When I first considered writing a book, Amy and I had just begun dating (though she’s now my wife!). As a career communications advisor to both the tech and biotech industries, Amy had these foundational communications skills, and she had also clearly seen the need.
Amy Aines (AA): From my early days in technology to my work with biotech companies, I’ve been involved in promoting a lot of new products that were technical in nature. So, I’ve had my fair share of technologists and scientists to coach along the way. All of the challenges Roger talked about really resonated with me. Of special note were his stories about funding decisions: the scientists who could tell their stories effectively were the ones most often chosen for funding, and those whose messages were buried in too much detail were overlooked.
When you’re a scientist with an early-stage idea, the ability to compel decision makers can mean life or death for your project. Yet knowing how to communicate this way is something most scientists don’t come by naturally or learn in school.
WHB: In the book, you outline an approach for science communicators that involves both the head and the heart, if you will. What are the main components of this approach?
AA: At the highest level, Championing Science is about communications, influence, and relationship-building. So often, scientists aren’t aware of how to connect with people, build credibility, and really understand how other people think—all of which are essential to influencing people. That’s because scientists don’t step back and recognize two key things: what’s critical to the people they’re attempting to influence, and what those people currently know about the science at hand. Instead, many scientists go into the kind of precise detail that’s the hallmark of good science, losing decision makers along the way. We talk a lot about these concepts throughout the book and explain how scientists can effectively approach decision makers, so those scientists don’t land flat-footed.
RA: When we began writing the book, we queried our contacts in all branches of science, from private industry to the federal government. The comments we got back from Washington were particularly insightful. We heard from staffers all over Congress that this was a desperately needed book, because congressmen and women really want to know what scientists think and can’t find out despite their best efforts! In other words, our congressional representatives often don’t understand their conversations with scientists.
WHB: You explain that “extracting the essence” of an idea or project—getting down to the really important elements of the work—is key to becoming an effective science communicator. Would you give an example that helps to bring this point to life for scientists?
RA: Early on in my career, I worked with Jay Davis, the first Director of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) at the Department of Defense. Whenever we were making a pitch to a potential sponsor, Jay had a rule: we had to give the whole pitch in five slides. Capturing the essence of our work in five slides, including what we’d do for the sponsor and how it would improve his or her world, was an incredibly powerful and effective technique. Scientists can think of this “Five Slide Approach” like the abstract of a paper, which summarizes the overarching purpose and value of a project, rather than the full paper itself, which goes into extensive detail that most decision makers don’t care about.
AA: When you don’t have a lot of time with a busy decision maker, failure to extract the essence can be fatal.
As we talked to VCs about their experiences with scientists, they told us they don’t want to start with the details—they want the answer first. If they’re interested in knowing how the answer was derived, they’ll ask.
So, it’s key to really crystalize what’s most important and then convey that succinctly at the outset.
WHB: You mentioned that Jay Davis was one of your mentors in science communications. Please tell us about any other science communicators who really got it right.
RA: After the Space Shuttle Challengeraccident in 1986, the famous physicist Richard Feynman was put in charge of the investigation, and he discovered a problem with the O-Rings. He went to Congress to report on this, but he didn’t bring a bunch of charts, and he didn’t tell them about temperature and expansion ratios. Instead, he took a piece of the O-Ring material that was used in the Challenger, folded it up, and dunked it into his glass of icewater. When he pulled it out, the material was still bent; it had obviously stiffened in that shape. All Feynman said was, “It would appear that this has some importance to our problem.” It’s a powerful example of “extracting the essence.”
WHB: What would you say to scientists who want to start communicating more effectively but don’t know how to start walking the talk?
AA: We’ve developed a quiz that’s available on the Championing Science web site, helping scientists to assess how well they currently communicate with decision makers. Chapter 15 includes exercises for applying the major concepts we cover in the book, such as creating a compelling narrative, understanding your paradigm, and becoming more self-aware. Chapter 7 includes a messaging matrix that helps scientists to break their worlds into audience segments, then contemplate what they hope each segment will think and feel about their work. The “feel” part is especially important: we’re all human, and we’re all motivated and inspired by things that move us. Scientists should remember to show their own passion and commitment to the work as another means of connecting with and inspiring their audiences.
WHB: What would you ultimately like the impact of Championing Science to be?
AA: Our goal with the book and our outreach work is to accelerate the learning curve, so that scientists—and young scientists in particular—can start learning how to effectively communicate and advocate now. We need policies to be created that are rooted in science. Given the current assault on science, there’s an imperative to mint scientists who can be effective communicators and play a vital role in helping policymakers understand what’s really at stake.
RA: Some think that scientists want to stay in an ivory tower and do science simply for its own sake—but you’d be surprised just how rare that mindset is. Scientists want to have an impact. When I hire people in my program, I tell them, “I’m looking to change the world,” and that’s very attractive to them. Amy and I hope that the communications techniques we describe in our book can help scientists describe to the world all that they’re doing to support our future.