Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a scientist” Part 2

Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:

Part 2: Don’t be so literal minded

Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.

In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.

One place to start is by coming up with an interesting title for your paper / report / presentation / ‘call to action’/ project. It’s time to let go of being so literal. Olson states that the best titles are a mixture of, “elusive enough but familiar enough”. By this he means be elusive enough to be slightly mysterious, but familiar enough that people don’t instantly switch off because it’s too alien.

We are then introduced to the idea of “Arouse and Fulfil”, also known as “Motivate then Educate”.

This is about getting people intrigued and wanting to know more, before you give them the logic and data. Olson talks about how scientists can get stuck in “Fulfil and Fulfil” habits, or just educating without bothering to do any motivating. In contrast, Hollywood can get caught up doing too much motivating and then never moving on the educating. All style and no substance.But the movie industry does do one thing right – they don’t assume that their work (a movie) will just sell itself. They have huge advertising budgets and promote their work months ahead of release.

Now if scientists aren’t so great at the motivating side of things, what can they use to help them out? The answer according to Olson… is ART. Art is evocative. It stirs people, motivates people and gets them asking questions. And once people are asking questions, then we can cue the scientist to answer them.

Okay, so art can be a powerful visual medium. But what does this mean for scientists?

It means that you can complement your rigorous scientific work, with evocative visuals to help motivate and engage your audience. Any images in your presentations, or images that are part of promoting your work are incredibly important. Below is a small example of the same  powerpoint slide with and without any images. Which do you feel is more engaging?

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Even when teaching a lecture, visuals can be used to help “motivate” the students to want to know more. Olson describes having to teach students about the 35 major groups of vertebrates in biology – some of which are really cool… and some of which are just lots of worm types. You could spend an equal amount of time on each group, describing them. Or you could start with a short film which aims to entertain and not to educate. It would cover all the cool aspects of the different biological groups and get the students enthused to know more. Then you can hit them with all the necessary details and differences.

So for mass communication, keep in mind motivating and then educating. It can be used as a two part process, or as Olson’s next chapter expands… you can use it in a whole other way!


Once again, if you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. Enjoy!

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 1

Introducing Dr. Randy Olson, a marine biologist who left the world of academia to find out what Hollywood could teach him. He became a writer/director and couldn’t help but see how all his new skills could be applied to science communication.

His book, “Don’t be such a scientist: Talking substance in the age of style” is one of my absolute favourites. It’s a curious combination of scientific convincing and acting class insights. This short book is split into five parts, each of which I will cover in a post.

Part 1: Don’t Be So Cerebral

The first thing Randy Olson introduces us to (besides some crazy snippets of his old acting teacher screaming at him!), is the idea of the four organs of mass communication… the head, the heart, the gut, and the lower organs.

Olson says that people tend to have different driving forces, different places that they’re coming from most of the time. The head thinkers are quite logical. They like thinking things through and getting things to make sense. Not surprisingly, most academics fit in here, but very few other people do. Attempting to communicate from this perspective to a global audience reaches the least amount of people.

Next we have the heart. Heart thinkers are the passionate, empathetic types. Olson talks about actors and religion fitting here. To me this is where most charities, disaster appeals and petitions speak from. Heart thinkers form a larger group than the Head thinkers, but still don’t include everyone.

Then comes the gut. Olson says that in the gut lies instinct and humour. It’s full of impulses, and also contradiction. When you feel something but can’t explain why, that’s when you’re listening to your gut. Reaching out to people from this perspective will allow you to influence most everyone out there.

And finally the lower organs. Down here there’s no logic, but it is powerful nonetheless. I can’t help but feel that the majority of advertising and movies lives here, and as the old adage says, “Sex sells”. From here you can reach pretty much everyone, and some people won’t pay any attention to anything else.

So why is this at all important for science communication?

Because if you as a scientist want to communicate, explain, persuade or get through to anyone who isn’t a head thinker – you need to be able to speak the language. Or at the very least, be able to take the different perspectives into account. Having to tell others about your research is a non-negotiable part of being a scientist. You will always have to do so, so why not try to get more comfortable with doing it well?

As Olson says – there’s two parts to communicating, the substance of what you’re saying, and then the style of how you say it. You’re more effective, interesting and engaging when you use both.


If you’re interested in reading, “Don’t be such a scientist” yourself, you can purchase the kindle edition from  Amazon.com.au for $13.03, or get the paper version for $26.50 from Booktopia.com.au, or from Angus&Roberston.com.au for $26.99. And no – I’m not getting anything to tell you. I just think it’s a brilliant read. Enjoy!