Six Practical Guidelines for Public Engagement

The Michigan Meeting for Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse brought scholars, practitioners, and communicators to the University of Michigan from May 13 – 15, 2015 to discuss why and how scientific scholarship should contribute to issues of public importance. COMPASS’ Science Outreach Director, Nancy Baron, attended the meeting and shared her six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively. We are excited to be able to share Nancy’s remarks from the panel here on Before the Abstract.

Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.
Image by Don Boesch, via Twitter. Left to right: Mark Barteau, Baruch Fischhoff, Dan Sarewitz, Detram Scheufele, Roger Pielke and Nancy Baron.

For COMPASS, “navigating the rules of public engagement” has been an ever evolving endeavor, which we described in a paper published in PloS Biology. We not only teach the core competencies of communication, we broker relationships. We help scientists find their way into the right conversations, with the right people, at the right time. We are coaches and navigators. I have worked in the trenches for the last 15 years with hundreds of scientists, many of them conducting research in controversial fields such as fisheries, fire ecology, and climate change. Their success stories inspire me; it’s what keeps me in this line of work.

I am honored and delighted to be on this panel. One of these things is not like the others – meaning me. My fellow panelists are all academic researchers whose work COMPASS shares in our trainings, because their social science provides critical context for communicating science and informs how scientists describe and discuss their own work. I am a practitioner, not an academic, so my perspective will be a little different, but I hope, complementary.

So here are my six practical guidelines for how scientists can engage effectively:

1)    Show your passion.

When I first started coaching scientists, there was much concern that revealing passion for what you studied was unbecoming of a scientist, even “unscientific.” It was something to be avoided. I’ve found time and again that the scientists willing to reveal a part of themselves are, by far, the most effective communicators. It’s not only the “What?” or the “How?” – what most people are interested in is the “Why?”

Why do you study what you do? Why do you care? Why does it matter to the rest of us? Communicating your “why” is a powerful way to humanize your science. Many scientists see a profound difference in how interested people are in their science, when they explain their “why.”

Susan Fiske, a Princeton University researcher, has found that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Scientists are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions. Trustworthiness, Fiske says, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence, and evidence suggests “warmth is judged before competence,” and has more impact on how people respond to what you say.

Yet as a scientist you are trained to be dispassionate, to write and speak in the passive voice. Some of the most funny and charming scientists I know suddenly become rigid and boring when they make a formal presentation. They put on their science face. And lose their audience.

From what I have seen, the most effective aspect of engagement is to be – engaging. This means being yourself. Your best self –  the self who can capture the interest of your friends and have them listen to you, spellbound.

I thought Andy Hoffman’s recent speech to graduating students at Erb was incredibly moving because he talked about what HE believed.

“So, while I may teach that we have to convince others to protect nature through self-interest, financial incentives and pragmatic reasons, I believe we have to protect it for reasons that evoke words like sacred, divine, reverence, and love.  We protect and devote ourselves to what we love.”

If you want to win the hearts and minds of the public and policymakers, you have to be forthcoming with your own.

2)    Tell stories.

“Stories are data with a soul,” says story researcher Brene Brown. They are powerful and persuasive. We remember them longer and hold them closer.  At the #AcadEng Meeting, Richard Alley gave an outstanding keynote. Everything he said was built on a bedrock of science, but it was memorable because of the stories and how he told them – his brilliant and quirky personality shining through.

3)    Find a community of support.

You can’t do it alone. You need a network of other scientists to encourage and embolden you in your efforts. I think this meeting was designed by Andy Hoffman to make this happen, both within the University of Michigan and by bringing in a broader community of experts and examples. Institutional support is essential. Reward those who do engage in outreach.  Make it part of the tenure process. This is happening in places now around the country. The Dean of the College of the Environment at the University of Washington, Lisa Graumlich (a Leopold fellow) is doing this. She tweeted us her perspective during the meeting, saying “Why not extend definition of research to include engagement as logical end product of engaged scholarship?”

4)    Find a mentor.

And my advice for young scientists, choose an advisor who not only has the academic credentials but who also shares your values to make your science matter. Pick someone who’s got your back, will guide you and will help you walk the fine lines that are especially important to young scientists. If the institution does not support these values, you might consider looking elsewhere for the leadership that will.

5)    Take the long view.

Most scientists I know who have suffered backlash have few regrets. They dust themselves off and respond with more and better science. Remember too, as poet Susan Musgrave says, “our mistakes make the best stories, and that’s why we should not think of them as failures.”

6)   I’ll end with the enduring guidance from the late, great Stanford climate scientist Steve Schneider: “Know thy audience, know thy self, know thy stuff”

 And remember that “staying out of the fray is not taking the ‘high ground’; it is just passing the buck.”

*This piece was adapted from an article originally published on May 21, 2015. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Is “Cold But Competent” A Problem in Science Communication?

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Liz Neeley (current Executive Director of The Story Collider) explores the perceived ‘cold’ reputations of scientists in comparison to other professionals. What is the quality we call  ‘warmth’ and how important is it to the way people view scientists and to their level of trust in science? Keep reading to find out.

A flash of insight can be profoundly pleasurable. For me it’s a little pop that’s the mental equivalent of clearing my ears while diving. Sharing that same electric sensation with hundreds of others in crowd? Then the pop feels more like a champagne bottle, with our individual ‘aha!’s spiraling outward as a fizzy wave of tweets. At the Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication, Susan Fiske of Princeton University uncorked one such shared moment in her presentation about beliefs and attitudes regarding science when she began speaking about warmth and competence.

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You can sometimes get a sense of the pulse of a meeting by watching the ebb and flow of its TweetStream. This graph shows the first day of the Sackler Colloquium. The biggest buzz was generated by Susan Fiske’s remarks, with some 900 tweets during her 90 minute session. Analysis using Topsy.

You can read the tweets sharing and reacting to Fiske’s talk here. Within the first four minutes of her presentation dissecting when and how people make decisions, Fiske told the audience that scientists have the respect of the public but not their trust. Trustworthiness, she explained, is a quality produced by a combination of perceived warmth and competence. Warmth in this work is not exactly ‘likeable,’ rather, it refers to the judgments we make about person’s motives. Competence is their ability to act on those intentions. Scientists, Fiske says, are seen as competent but cold in comparison to other professions.

If you read our previous posts about trust in science, you know this is a topic dear to my heart. It’s also incredibly fertile ground for discussions of how we might start applying what social science tells us. Hearing Fiske talk, discussing it over lunch and coffee, and reflecting in the weeks to follow, I wanted to understand:

  • What is this quality we call ‘warmth’ and why is it important?
  • What do we know about how people view scientists in terms of warmth and competence?
  • How can we – individually and collectively – counteract ‘cold’ reputations, if that is an important and valid goal?

The Research

This 2007 review paper by Fiske et al in Trends in Cognitive Sciences caught my eye with it’s unambiguous title: “Universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence.” I encourage you to give it a read – the text is remarkably sharp and minces no words. Across cultures, with respect to individuals and groups, thoughts, and behaviors, warmth matters, a lot. In three quotes from the paper, here’s why:

  1. “In sum, when people spontaneously interpret behavior or form impressions of others, warmth and competence form basic dimensions that, together, account almost entirely for how people characterize others… “
  2. “Considerable evidence suggests that warmth judgments are primary: warmth is judged before competence, and warmth judgments carry more weight in affective and behavioral reactions.”
  3. “competence and warmth stereotypes combine to predict emotions, which directly predict behaviors.”

In short, Fiske et al. argue that we have “decades of experimental social psychology laboratories, election polls and cross-cultural comparisons” all telling us that our instinctive judgments of warmth explain most of how we assess strangers, happen in split seconds and are more important than our assessments of competence, and directly predict behavior. The data on how scientists are perceived is as-yet unpublished, though Fiske showed some of it at the Sackler Colloquium.

Fiske presenting data from Cydney Dupree, showing warmth and competence assessments of different professions. Science-related careers (scientist, researcher, professor, teacher) indicated in red. Photo by Liz Neeley, Creative Commons license.

Until we can take a hard look at the data, we should maintain healthy skepticism. But if it is true that scientists are seen as cold but competent, we may have a problem. My understanding is that this combination of traits can breed envy and jealousy, which psychologists link to “passive association and active harm.” When we talk about public trust or science as a brand, this is no minor issue.

It’s also important to acknowledge too that this literation about stereotype formation can lead to uncomfortable insights and hard conversations about race, gender, class, and other dimensions. Most social groups are not in the admired ‘very warm and very capable’ category. We must think carefully, and question assumptions that people are responsible for negative perceptions about them and could control those judgments if only they behaved differently. This is dangerous territory.

So What Do We Do?

We all know what it feels like to be working to make a good impression. When I asked twenty or so friends and colleagues to contribute to this post by sharing what they think signals warmth, they talked about smiling, eye contact, posture and body language, authenticity, and above all, listening to other people. This aligns with related work on impression management, finding that “when people want to appear warm, they tend to agree, compliment, perform favors, and encourage others to talk. When people want to appear competent, they emphasize their accomplishments, exude confidence, and control the conversation.” That quote comes from a paper by Holoien and Fiske with the intuitive but fascinating finding that people downplay positive impressions in the warmth dimension in order to appear more competent. Another group went so far as to include “You want to appear competent? Be mean!“ in the title of their paper. This seems to particularly relate to hypercriticism. I can’t help but think of how this manifests, for example, in journal clubs and job talks.

The bottom line for me is that if we are concerned about trust in science and perceptions of scientists, we must focus not only on competence but also – and perhaps more importantly – warmth. Rather than artificially exaggerating traits we think convey friendliness, scientists and science communicators should simply resist the tendency to emphasize their credibility at the cost of their personality. In short… perhaps the best advice is the simplest. Be yourself.

Journal Club

The methods, statistics, and theory of this kind of research is fascinating, but far outside my own expertise. We value your feedback and thoughts, so please take a look at some of the other papers that informed this post. I would love to discuss further:

*This article was originally published on October 21, 2013. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Making Peace with Self-Promotion

In this featured guest post from the COMPASS blog*, author Liz Neeley (current Executive Director of The Story Collider) breaks down the most common arguments scientists use against self-promotion. Storytellers and those with trepidations about putting themselves “out there” will benefit from this well-researched piece.

I prepare for writing projects as if they are adventures, so when I sat down to write a book chapter this spring, I was excited. The topic was self-promotion in social media, for the forthcoming The Complete Guide to Science Blogging, made possible by an NASW Ideas Grant. My coffee was hot, my playlist was inspired, and my background research had me buzzing… but before I started writing, I first saved the tweet I would post when I submitted:

self promotion tweet_liz

Those of you who knew Steve Schneider may find the cadence to be a familiar one. He wrote, “In my view, staying out of the fray is not taking the “high ground”; it is just passing the buck.” These are deliberately provocative soundbites designed to question countervailing norms: they are fighting words. I like this approach, but – as we teach in our workshops – advocacy for yourself or your science – online or off – is a deeply personal decision with lasting consequences.

In the chapter, I write that there seems to be “a deep-seated belief that while the work of content creation is noble, the work of drawing attention to that content is distasteful if not in fact degrading. It’s an emotional reaction, exacerbated by the suspicion that the usual advice for increasing traffic—repetition, jumping into comment threads to mention your post, direct requests to retweet—can indeed annoy the very people you hope to impress, particularly if you are female. In the past five years, I’ve taught social media to hundreds of researchers in dozens of workshops, and have never had a discussion about self-promotion that didn’t feel at least a little uncomfortable.” Consider it to be a professional skill – you need to learn how to do it well, despite feeling awkward at the outset. The three most common arguments I hear are:

1) But I don’t want to annoy people 

  • Soundbite version: Thank you for being a decent human being!
  • But seriously: Thank you. Fortunately, bad behavior is not inextricable from self-promotion. I enjoyed reading this paper: titled “Self Praise in Microblogging,” it distinguishes between bragging (associated with inflated ego and deceit) and positive disclosure (associated with healthy self-confidence). Hint: it’s not using the word “I” instead of “we” that’s the problem. Bragging is aggressive, competitive, and often exaggerated. Positive disclosure shares true information, is modest in scope, and is often moderated by praise of others. The former annoys people, and there are studies of exactly how and why. It’s a false dichotomy to set up silence as the only alternative to obnoxiousness.

2) But I want my work to speak for itself

  • Soundbite: Sorry. You know better.
  • But seriously: If you are not familiar with the concept of the attention economy, I recommend reading up on it. In short, it argues that conditions of information superabundance have shifted the historical dynamic and made undivided attention a precious commodity. Furthermore, we do not make these decisions independently, but are strongly influenced by our networks. I am reminded of what Noshir Contractor presented at the 2013 Sackler Colloquium: it’s definitely not just what you know, nor even who you know (social networks), but also who they think you know (cognitive social networks) and what who you know knows (knowledge networks). Wishful thinking about meritocracy ignores the abundant science about how information and attention flow in human societies.

3) But I don’t want to overpromise

  • Soundbite: Ok… so don’t do that then?
  • But seriously: I struggled with the name of this one, because unlike the other two, this concern is more amorphous. It goes something like, “Well, I wrote a post/made something/have a project but it’s not the best thing ever and I don’t want to jack up expectations.” Fair enough. Not every idea is ripe yet, and sometimes we share for feedback as much as anything else. I have two diverging thoughts here, and I don’t know which one is best suited to your needs:
  • Be critical…: Exercise your best judgment and calibrate your efforts accordingly. Don’t cheapen your superlatives with overuse. In graphic form, Jay Rosen nails the #1 rule of being influential on social media: “[if] you say it’s good, it’s actually good”
  • …but be fair: There is a wonderful discussion of the impostor syndromehappening online. This entire enterprise is contingent on your own conviction that you have something important to say: don’t let doubt and disbelief sabotage you.

As I say in ending the chapter, “Done well, self-promotion is acting in service of your ideas, not just clamoring for affirmation. Finding your voice, focusing on great content, and positioning it effectively can create positive spirals to benefit your work and your career. You have great ideas. Get over yourself, get out there, and help us discover them.” You’re not asking for favors, you’re doing us a favor when you share relevant people and material, and that absolutely includes you and your work.

We always want to know what you are working on and excited about so please, shake the awkward feeling and use the comment section to tell us about yourself or a project you’d like to share!

Papers I reference (for easy access):

Moss-Racusin, C. a., & Rudman, L. a. (2010). Disruptions in women’s self-promotion: the backlash avoidance model. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 34(2), 186–202. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2010.01561.x

Dayter, D. (2014). Self-praise in microblogging. Journal of Pragmatics, 61, 91–102. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2013.11.021

Hoorens, V., Pandelaere, M., Oldersma, F., & Sedikides, C. (2012). The hubris hypothesis: you can self-enhance, but you’d better not show it. Journal of Personality, 80(5), 1237–74. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2011.00759.x

Other good sources on self-promotion in the sciences:

*This article was originally published on May 30, 2014. It has been reposted with the permission of COMPASS Science Communication, Inc., a non-profit, non-advocacy organization whose vision is to see more scientists engage effectively in the public discourse about the environment.

Is there anybody out there?

Researchers are under increasing pressure to communicate the results of their endeavours more widely. But how can we begin to establish a meaningful dialogue with an audience we don’t know?

My name’s James Harle, and in my capacity as a writer for Research Media I work with researchers and research-performing organisations to help share their work in an accessible and impactful way. It can be a demanding task; research is inherently complex after all – if it weren’t, we’d all be doing it – and many investigators are only used to explaining what they do to similarly expert colleagues. In my experience, however, there is no topic so obtuse or abstract that it can’t be made accessible (at least in principle) to a given audience.

And therein lies the crux of the matter: powerful communication – the kind that not only puts a message across but makes it stick, makes it memorable – begins with knowing your audience. When you know the person you’re talking to, you understand their experience and frame of reference; when you can speak directly to someone’s experience, you can engage their interest, and there is no limit to what you can make them understand.

It has often been said that there is some virtue in being able to explain a concept in simple enough terms that your mother (or grandparents, or a barkeep, depending on who you listen to) can understand it. So, in that spirit, let’s use my mother as an example: she’s a middle-aged beekeeper from Devon, with no formal training in the sciences. She doesn’t have any interest in, say, research that uses machine learning to uncover hidden networks within social media – but she does know a hell of a lot about bees, and a handy analogy can bring those two worlds together. I might tell her it’s a computer program that could determine which of her bees had probably been in contact with which other bees behind her back.

It’s easy to communicate effectively with an audience of one – especially if it’s your mum – but engaging the public usually means audiences with higher volumes, and this can raise issues. Specifically, the more people you want to talk to, the more general your frame of reference has to be. At Research Media, some of our most difficult clients are those who want to reach everyone. When you say that your audience is everyone, you are necessarily being lazy; 89 per cent of the world’s population doesn’t speak English, for a start. The fact is that a message to be read by ‘everyone’ may be heard by many, but will be too diluted to achieve any impact.

Another common stumbling block for researchers is falling back on communication methods that work for academic audiences. Too often, I come across scientists who are not prepared to give up (even for a moment) their project acronyms, their technical jargon and their citations. I won’t deny that these tools have their place; they are useful in communicating effectively and efficiently with your immediate colleagues. But the problem is that, put simply, your colleagues already know what you do – and this language won’t help anyone else get in on the action.

So, choose your audience wisely, as they should be at the centre of your communications strategy. When you aim to engage or to explain, begin by exploiting the commonalities between members of your audience; build your communications on shared and fundamental knowledge. Finally, avoid common mistakes that can distort your image of the people you are speaking to. The truth is that, complex as your work may be, it is for the benefit of the general populace – and it won’t be as far from their comprehension as you think.

Notes from a Storyteller

Yes. Unhesitatingly, yes was my response when invited to share a story at a storytelling evening among landscape ecologists.[1]

It’s not that I’m a show-off. In fact I’m an introvert. But I was burned out at the time, worn down from overwork and life stresses. The result was that I felt I’d lost whatever creative spark used to infuse my work. Storytelling seemed like just the thing to get the juices flowing again. So I leapt at the chance.

Little did I know that only weeks later as the event drew near, I’d be wrestling with a draft of my story, a growing tangle of nervous discontent and self-judgement in my belly.

The good news is that it didn’t end that way.

As a social scientist with a background in the humanities and ecological sciences, I’ve always been drawn to stories in research and life.  The core questions that underpin all of my work are: How do people experience their own love of nature? What moves them to care for and protect natural places? How does one person reach out and touch that motivation in another?

For years, I’ve worked in the field of environmental conservation, always focused on people, places, and stories – ethnography, oral history, local knowledge, Indigenous culture. I’m that woman who walks around in the backcountry with an audio recorder in hand, always ready for the next good tale. My professional writing is woven with narrative excerpts – the stories people have shared. Even tracking wildlife or measuring plants, I’m really just following storylines that are imprinted on the land.

My own memory is chock-full of personal stories from the field – wacky adventures, near misses, beautiful reflections, colourful characters – that never make it into formal written papers.  But somewhere along the way, my own brief pieces of creative writing fell aside, and dried up all together – casualties on the factory floor of academic productivity.

So of course I was eager to tell a story. It sounded like good fun! The staff from Springer and Story Collider were supportive from the start. They warmly received my pitch for a story over the phone, and encouraged me to send a written draft so that we could polish it together. No problem. I write for a living.

Yet somehow, when I wrote it out, that spark fizzled out again.

I entered the familiar territory of revising, wordsmithing, struggling with decisions about what to edit out…and the story lost its energy. I had excellent feedback from the producer, from friends and colleagues with whom I practised…yet I couldn’t make my story feel right.

In anguished frustration, with five days to go until performance night, I complained to my partner: “I should be good at this! Stories are what I do. I want to be good at it. Why is this so hard?”

That was when he gently pointed out something that should have been obvious to me: “You deal with other people’s stories. Telling your own is different. How often do you do that? It’s going to take practice.”

Hm. Of course.

It turns out that telling a good story, a personal story that touches other people, is an art and a craft.  Like music or singing, it is a unique combination of skill and technique, together with phrasing, tonal and emotional nuance, feelings. This is something that the people at Story Collider know very well, and thankfully they have experience guiding people like me through that epiphany.  Their producer didn’t skip a beat when I told her four days before the event, “I’m throwing away my written draft.”

I went for a walk, cleared my head, and then got out a blank sheet of paper and a pen. I drew a meandering path across the page, and began filling in features along the way: events, quotes, sensory details. Then I looked at it for a while, put it away, and recounted my story from memory over the phone to Story Collider’s producer. Better. Getting there.

Practice, practice, practice: over the phone to friends; muttering to myself while walking on public footpaths; visualizing silently on the plane to the event.

At last we were there. I saw the other storytellers, and realized we were all nervous – even the senior professors who have taught and lectured to large audiences for years. This was different. There were no notes, no slides, no prompts, and it was personal.

I walked to the microphone and spoke my first sentence. Eager smiles and laughter! Second sentence – the audience was right with me. I thought, This is going to be OK. And it was. In fact it felt wonderful.

All-in with the audience…

And that is the magic. People connect through stories. Stories are how we learn, relate, empathize, and remember. Standing up there and telling my own story, I felt the power, humility and vulnerability in sharing a personal story with a room full of people. I was reminded by the audience of the generosity inherent in the act of listening, really listening.

As a social scientist, working on the story gave me helpful first-hand insights to many of the methodological decisions I deal with in my academic and professional writing. What details to include or leave out? Where is the central theme? How much to guide the audience’s interpretation of someone else’s experience? Am I representing the characters fairly?

Crafting a good story yielded some valuable techniques that translate to improve the way I communicate about my work and how I teach. I truly believe personal stories do have a place in professional scientific discourse. Without them we are at best dull and forgettable, at worst lost.

For me, storytelling is not merely a form of science communication. It is a core aspect of human connection to the world around us. In my work, storytelling is a forum where the colourful personal emotions and experiences that often make conservation science work most meaningful are celebrated as the best part!  It reinvigorated the dormant passion that underlies my work – the creativity I’d lost in recent years. I can’t wait to try it again.

[1] The event was jointly produced and hosted by The Story Collider and Springer Science + Business Media, at the International Association of Landscape Ecologists (IALE) Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Access Jonaki’s story here.