Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Start with "why," especially if you're talking about science

Executive Summary:

Talking science to lay audiences is difficult because scientists themselves are trained for academic rigor, not public outreach. Examples from Wired magazine, TED talks and the Wright brothers demonstrate that by telling a story "out of order" -- by starting with "why" -- scientists (and their spokespeople) can influence society and invite financial security.

Key Points:
  1. Just by rearranging the order of your presentation or online post, you can reach a broader audience and get peope to lean forward while listening rather than passively sit back.
  2. Start with "why it matters," even if it's just your opinion or if the proportion of your presentation dedicated to that perspective is scant to nil. Let "how" bring up the rear.
Sound Bite:

"Unfortunately, science is underrepresented in social discourse, in large part because scientists are reluctant to communicate with lay audiences."

Read the whole article:

If you're communicating with a lay audience about science and technology, start with "why." For most of us, that means telling the story out of order.

If you don’t start with “why,” you won’t be heard. Instead, you’ll be white noise that people easily tune out. Your audience needs a personal reason for becoming engaged with your “what” and “how.” So first create a sense of purpose, and only then follow up with facts. Give people a reason to listen and they will.

Unfortunately, science is underrepresented in social discourse, in large part because scientists are reluctant to communicate with lay audiences. When they do communicate, their “story” adheres to academic standards in which the lead is buried and the natural drama is drained out.

If you work in science PR or are a scientist willing to reach out and influence someone, this post is for you.

I suggest starting your first draft of an article or speech by asking yourself these questions
from the audience’s perspective:

• Why?
• Why now?
• Why does it matter?
• Why should I care?

Also ask, “What
role does the technology or research play in the larger scheme of things?” In other words, say why it matters to have that particular role fulfilled. Do not describe how it works or what you did to arrive at your conclusions – save that for later.

When you do this the first few times, it feels wrong. You'll argue, "How can I tell them
why they should care if I haven't even told them what they should care about?" That seems logical, I agree. But as it turns out, telling the story out of order is only a problem for you, the explainer. Readers and listeners have no problem with it.

If you’ve got an academic paper on hand, try this: Go to the very end, even past the final summary, to the very short section where the author suggests future questions or experiments. It might only be two sentences and you may not consider it the most important point, but it’s probably there.

Now make this the opening line of your speech or article, even if presenting to an audience of scientists. Why? This is the part of the presentation the audience can act on or make decisions about – in their own lives.

I guarantee they will perk up and listen closely.

By contrast, if you start with your assumptions, they’ll half-listen, waiting with patience for the good part because they have been conditioned to do so – that is, if they’re scientists. Non-scientists will try to listen but fail to find a handle they can hang onto, and eventually their minds will wander.

After starting at the end, now go out on a limb and venture an opinion. Tell everyone why you think they should consider these suggested actions and decisions. Tell them what’s at stake. Describe what could happen if they don’t. Show them how the future could potentially differ from what we expect, and why that would be advantageous.

If it makes you feel better, tell the audience it’s your opinion, and then tell them again that it was your opinion right before you dive into the objective facts.

If you don’t believe me, try it yourself and watch the audience response.

The approach above (starting at the end of the academic paper) is just one way to find the “why.” I’ve got many more up my sleeve, which I can share with you when you hire me for a workshop.

I’m not alone in preaching the virtue of “why first, how later.”

If you look closely, you’ll notice that news stories on scientific topics start with “what’s in it for me,” “why care,” “why care now,” or “why it matters.” The “how” is always near the bottom or at most two-thirds from the top.

Below are similar messages, one from Wired
magazine, the other from a TED talk. (Thank you, Edelman clean technology team (my colleagues), for bringing these to my attention.)

In the Wired article, Jennifer Ouellette – a director with a National Academy of Sciences program – is quoted as saying scientists “feel that the facts should speak for themselves. They’re not wrong; they’re just not realistic.”

Another person quoted in the story – Kelly Bush, CEO of a PR firm called ID – says, “They need to make people answer the questions, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ‘How does it affect my daily life?’ ‘What can I do that will make a difference?’ Answering these questions is what’s going to start a conversation.”

“The messaging up to this point has been ‘Here are our findings. Read it and believe.’ The deniers are convincing people that the science is propaganda,” Bush said.

In his TED talk, Simon Sinek says business leaders need to start with the why, and only later give the what and the how. (My, my! How familiar!) He uses Apple Inc., Martin Luther King Jr. and the Wright brothers as examples of history-changers who started their communications with why.

I’m heavily paraphrasing, but have a quick look:

Apple: “We believe in changing the world and thinking differently. We’re doing that by making products that are beautiful and simple to use. Oh, and by the way, we sell computers. Want to buy one?”

Imagine if the order was reversed and the why was left out: “Want to buy a computer from us? Ours are beautiful and simple to use.”

Not so credible. Not so compelling.

MLK: “I have a dream,” not “I have a plan.”

Wright brothers: “This flying machine can change our world for the better.”
Langley (who made the same effort but whose name we don’t know): “I want to build a machine and make money.”

Tell people why they should care, then backfill with the backstory. If you do it the other way around, you risk losing your audience altogether or – at a minimum – losing an opportunity to engage them in your entire presentation.