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.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 4.25.02 PM

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.