Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Science Translation Tips from Prof-Turned-Filmmaker: Motivate Then Educate, Concision Not Dumbing Down ...

Book Review: Helping Scientists & Engineers Talk

A just-published book by a professor-turned-filmmaker raises a question that tech PR people have long asked: How can we help science and technology guys (& gals) communicate with the mainstream public?

I offer a zillion tips and tools for this in my writing workshops, but that's not what this post is about. Instead, let's look at the biggest problem of all.


Even when a scientist or engineer decides he wants to speak effectively with outsiders, peer pressure works against him. His resolve can't last.

Randy Olson's book, "Don't Be Such a Scientist," is written from the perspective of a scientist. And that's what makes it valuable. A Harvard-trained biologist with an MFA from USC's School of Cinema, Olson deals with the scientist's psychological fears about compromising accuracy, for example, and speaks the language of scientists while offering alternative structures for packaging info.

Tough, cheeky & confrontational

At the same time, Olson isn't forgiving or hand-holding. Four of five chapter titles are criticisms (e.g. "Don't Be So Unlikeable").

His tone is almost a free-association account of his personal experiences in both worlds, a stylistic choice that gives him plenty of leeway for being flippant. On balance, he's throwing down his glove and challenging scientists to a duel.

His conversational tone and cheeky attitude are also what makes this a good read for tech PR people. You won't feel like you're in school.

Some of his tips are useful sound bites. For example, "motivate, then educate" and "concision, not dumbing down." I like these because they eliminate negative connotations that in my opinion are unfounded.

As a science reporter myself for three years, I've interviewed plenty of great scientists who were also great communicators. There's no reason to believe there's a trade-off. Scientists can be both, and the world will be all the better for it.

Will scientists read it?

But getting back to that question of willingness: Most scientists aren't there, and probably won't pick up this book in the first place. So it behooves all of us in tech PR to read it for them. We'll gain better understanding of their psychological obstacles and of the core values that they worry are being laid on the chopping block. We can learn how to make them feel safe while taking necessary risks.

Incidentally, two other books I can recommend are:

"Richard Feynman: A Life in Science" by John & Mary Gribbon (Dutton, 1997) -- Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could tell a good story. One caveat, though, is a big one -- he fudged the truth and the authors go too easy on him for that. Still, the bigger takeaway is important: He was influential because he could talk.

"Field Guide for Science Writers" by Deborah Blum & Mary Knudson (Oxford University Press, 1997) -- Super valuable collection of lessons that the best newspaper reporters on science beats have learned at the school of hard knocks. Very practical advice. Very applicable to PR writing. In fact, I've just now decided to re-read it myself. It's that good.

You might also search archives for news stories by Keay Davidson, my all-time favorite news reporter on a science beat. He wrote for the San Francisco Examiner when it was awesome (no more) and more recently for the San Francisco Chronicle. He has published six books. I haven't read them, but they must be good. He exemplifies science storytelling at its best.