Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a Scientist” Part 4

The fourth instalment of Dr Randy Olson‘s book explores the trait of “likability” and its place in scientific communication.

Part 4: Don’t be so unlikeable.

Even just the title of this chapter made me think – “What does he mean ‘unlikeable’? Is he talking about always agreeing with people? Or trying to look pretty and make friends?” It turns out there’s a bit more to it than that…

To begin with, Olson once again describes the value of scientists as society’s truth tellers, or as the “designated drivers” of reality. Scientists are those who resist getting swept up by fantasy and instead try to take a good hard look at the facts.

Scientists play an important role – there’s no denying it. However the question remains, can you be a scientist and still be liked?

Because science is based upon the process of critical evaluation, pointing out flaws and faults in arguments and ideas, can become second nature. But this sometimes aggressive process can be taken as un-neccessarily critical, arrogant and just plain mean when seen by the general public. Olson warns scientists to be careful of “rising above” (acting superior, arrogant or smarter-than) when communicating with people from a non-scientific background.

From previous chapters we already know there’s substance (what you say) and there’s style (the way you say it). Now would be nice to think that the substance of an idea, process or project, is what people pay attention to. Yet as discussed by both Randy Olson and Richard Lanham, when it comes to large public venues with broad audiences (or any time when the amount of information being communicated reaches excessive levels) then people’s minds make a shift from substance to style.

It becomes easier to evaluate the presenter, then to evaluate the information they’re sharing.

So how does Olson recommend you can become more likeable?

  1. First impressions count. People can form an opinion of you within the first few seconds of meeting you. Try to appear friendly, calm and organised (neat).
  2. Even if someone disagrees with something you say, don’t rise above. Stay grounded, calm and try to understand where they’re coming from. Don’t be dismissive.
  3. Shift from using only your brain to using humour, emotion and passion. If you can work “fun” in there too, then you’re golden.

Does being likeable mean you cannot use critical thinking? No, not at all. It means you can use both positivity (a form of spontaneity or creativity) and THEN negativity (critical thinking).

Options for interviews:

One opportunity for using both positivity and negativity which Olson gives is during an interview. When asked a question, he says you can partition your answers, for example by beginning with a range of creative possibilities and then imposing some discipline by moving on to, “But a lot of evidence points to the most logical explanation of ….”. This shifting back and forth provides your interview with much more interest than simply sticking to the pure logical results the entire time.

My own recent attempts at likability

By launching my Edible Gardens project, I have been doing most of the promotion myself. Often I have only a few minutes to get explain my project and make a good impression. So thank goodness for all my hospitality experience with waitressing, bartending etc. I am more than comfortable introducing myself, smiling and chatting to new people.

But it’s not just my hospitality experience making the difference – I am working hard at being likeable.

Lots of smiling, nodding when people talk, taking in their perspectives and ideas or concerns, learning a bit about their circumstances to see whether or not my project is right for them – as much as learning whether they are right for my project.

By making a social effort and focussing on the mutual benefits, I am getting through to most of the people I meet, and have had many project volunteers.


Want to read all the brilliant stories and details of, “Don’t be such a scientist” for 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!

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