Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:
“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.
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.
“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.
What a brilliant interview with Dr Rachael Dunlop – I love the idea of starting by learning to communicate effectively and THEN getting into science. Possible a harder way of doing things but she has made it a success.
This March Alan Alda was interviewed by Will Grant and Rob Lamberts from the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Alan is not a scientist, instead he is simply fascinated by talking to, and questioning all kinds of scientists.
During this interview Alan talks about the power of curiosity – the drive to ask and find out “why?”, and yet he insists that curiosity combined with ignorance is even stronger!
During his life Alan has had the opportunity to interview many, many scientists. Some of these he did without a list of questions, but more as an informal curious conversation. He said that doing so brought out much more of the individual scientist’s personality than usually shown. And he spoke of wishing that scientists could get into that conversational tone all by themselves, without an interviewer to help them.
Alan is a vocal advocator for teaching communication skills to science students as a core part of their university education.
Alan also spoke of the need to not dumb down the science being communicated but to instead to focus on clarity and vividness. He defined being vivid as, “to show how it affects our daily lives, what the stories are that led to these discoveries.”
Some scientists may ask what good communicating their research to the public actually does for them. According to Alan, the scientists who undertook training at the Centre for Communicating Science found that working to refine their research message resulted in them becoming much more focussed and clear about what they were doing and why.
This idea that re-working, re-explaining and re-focusing on the purpose and value of your science can actually lead to better science, is amazing. By attempting to communicate your message to a variety of people, journalists, community groups or organisations you are constantly re-afirming and checking how you describe and explain your work. This sort of reflection can be a powerful process for clearer, more vivid science.