Media Training Tips – The Five Biggest Mistakes Scientists Make – And How You Can Avoid Them

Why Scientists Are Losing the PR Wars (And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes) Over the years, our firm has trained hundreds of scientists. They’re some of our favorite clients, but they’re often not naturals at delivering effective and memorable media interviews. So we weren’t surprised by a recent Newsweek headline that blared, “Their … Continue reading “Media Training Tips – The Five Biggest Mistakes Scientists Make – And How You Can Avoid Them”

Why Scientists Are Losing the PR Wars (And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes)

Over the years, our firm has trained hundreds of scientists. They’re some of our favorite clients, but they’re often not naturals at delivering effective and memorable media interviews. So we weren’t surprised by a recent Newsweek headline that blared, “Their Own Worst Enemies: Why Scientists Are Losing the PR Wars.”

According to the article, scientists are losing the argument on major issues such as evolution and climate change. One expert quoted in the piece, a former biology professor, argues that scientists mistakenly appeal to people’s heads, not their hearts and guts. We agree.

Those of you who work with scientists (or physicians, academics, and policy wonks) will immediately recognize the five mistakes in this issue – and those who don’t will learn from their mistakes. Five Reasons Scientists Are Losing the PR Wars (And What You Can Learn From Their Mistakes)

1. They Hedge

Scientists don’t speak the language of absolutes, but rather the language of theories, studies, and hypotheses. They load their interviews with phrases such as:

• “the emerging conclusion seems to be”
• “there is increasing evidence that”
• “a recent study suggests”

But media interviews plagued with hedge phrases are squandered opportunities. The average television news sound bite is just seven seconds long, and hedge phrases cost too much of your limited airtime. Stop speaking the language of hedges. Journalists looking for a good sound bite will edit them out anyway. Tell viewers what you know, not what you don’t. And insert as many declarative statements as the science allows.

2. They Focus on Facts

Facts are beautiful things, but they don’t necessarily move people. Good communicators align their facts to an audience’s needs, and scientists engaging in advocacy need to create a larger context for their facts.

Instead of simply stating evidence, tell the audience what it means for them. Explain the implications to their health, livelihood, or family. Give them an example. Tell them about the negative consequences of inaction, but also paint the picture of the positive future made possible because of today’s action.

3. They Want to be Credible

Dozens of trainees in our media training workshops have told me that they don’t want to display a lot of energy during their media interviews because they want to “maintain their credibility.” They’re focusing on the wrong thing. Just by being on television (or on radio, or in the newspaper), the audience automatically views you with credibility. And you get an extra dose of credibility when the journalist identifies you as an expert.

Since you’ve been deemed credible, all you have to focus on is clear, passionate communication. Think of the energy you bring to your personal conversations regarding subjects you are passionate about (e.g. a ludicrous company policy, a sports team, your daughter’s straight-A report card). Bring that same level of energy to your media interview – and you’ll be perceived as both credible and memorable.

4. They Speak to Their Peers

I often ask scientists how they can express a complicated point more understandably. They regularly respond with something along the lines of, “Well, I need to leave that small detail in there, or else my colleagues will give me grief.”

They’re forgetting a critical point: the primary audience isn’t their peers – it’s the general audience. That means losing some important but unnecessary detail in the pursuit of a larger goal – being understood. That’s not “dumbing it down,” but rather the very essence of effective communication.

5. They Forget the 12-Year-Old Nephew Rule

The professor quoted by Newsweek said, “Once [scientists] have spewed it out, they feel the burden is on the audience to understand it.”

It shouldn’t be. Make sure your answers are jargon-free and broadly understandable by practicing with a bright child. Try explaining a difficult concept to your 12-year-old nephew. Then, ask him to repeat the idea back to you in his own words. If he understood it, you’ve found your winning answer. If not, keep trying until he does.

Training Strategy – How to Develop a Training Curriculum

The need arises when one of the following circumstances exist:

  • Introducing a specific new skill set for a targeted audience
  • A broad-based behavior shift in the organization is needed
  • Orientating selected individuals into a new hierarchical level, with new responsibilities
  • Entrenching a way of thinking and operating
  • Accelerating the development of identified high achievers
  • On-boarding optimization is needed
  • Creating a networked critical mass of people at a certain level
  • A need for a represented national specialist body of professionals

These programs, because of the time, effort, and cost involved, need to be planned with extreme care so as to ensure the intended results are achieved. There are definite steps to take that can ensure a positive outcome with a large scale development initiative.

Establish Outcomes

After careful analysis of the environment, competency and development needs should be identified. This will aid in defining the focus and clarifying who the internal target audience is. A decision needs to be made whether entry selection criteria should be applied and what these criteria should be. Target learners should be profiled. Defined outcomes will enable benchmarking measurements to be made, and ensure that the training program is designed with the end in mind.

Identify Competencies

Core competencies need to be established. These are the competencies that will ensure the outcomes are achieved. The definition of competencies can be delineated into the knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitude required. These competencies also need to be linked to the organization’s strategy to ensure that its future resource capability needs are met. The competency pieces can be mapped against what currently exists, as well as what is still needed. A matrix can be utilized in order to gain an overall perspective.

Distinguish Levels

Competencies can be further broken down into different levels of mastery. This ensures that progression in development efforts can be made. The training program curriculum can then also be focused on the desired level of capability. A two or three tiered differentiation can be made. The base level can be referred to as essential, basic, or core. The second level can be termed advanced, refined, extended, or accelerated. The final tier can be named mastery, elevated, honors, or excellence. Sometimes a more pressing delineation to make for competencies is to distinguish those related to the self, interfacing with others, and finally organizational system oriented ones. However the competency levels are broken down, they need to be linked to identified target audiences with regards roles, as well as the intended application.

Integrate with Existing Initiatives

Examine existing learning initiatives in the organization and determine which initiatives are no longer relevant because they no longer support the strategies of the organization, and which initiatives are currently addressing the required competencies and, therefore, need to remain. Introducing relevant reinforcing messages or activities into existing initiatives, where appropriate, can provide good traction for the identified new development outcomes. This helps differentiate between what is being addressed to what still needs to be done.

Any new training program curriculum needs to address the gaps established to ensure the desired outcomes are reached.

Include the Stakeholders

Recognize who can affect the training program and who can be affected by it. Highlight the key leverage players and recognize their expectations. Then see which of these expectations can be met by the program and what communications are needed in order to manage the met, or unmet, expectations. Also decide on which stakeholders need to be involved in the design and delivery stages of the program and what form their involvement needs to take. Communication with stakeholders before, during, and after the training program is essential.

Create the Framework

Map each of the learning components so that the order of the development process is established and the delivery pieces identified. Both the methods of delivery and the development support mechanisms that are needed must be decided upon. The target audience’s possible learning styles should also be taken into consideration.

Organize the Logistics

Create a checklist of the actions to take before, during, and after a training program is delivered. Think the initiative through to the finest delivery detail, as every detail counts to reinforce and support the learning process and its impact. This includes the first point of contact with participants and stakeholders through to the final communication needed. Design formatted templates for the selection of candidates, the support action required from managers, invitations, checkpoint emails, and briefings for venues and other service providers. Consider the positioning of the training program through consistent branding and focused marketing. Constructing a project plan to implement and manage the training program is an expedient move to make.

Deliver the Plan

Ensure the program and its development outcomes remain aligned to the strategic needs of the organization. Then, throughout the implementation of the plan, keep people accountable, track progress made, and adjust where necessary. Keep the lines of communication open with the participants throughout the duration of the training program. Participants need to feel supported in this endeavor.

Measure and Improve

For a training curriculum to have sustainable impact, benchmarking can be a part of a longitudinal measure of results. Ultimately, it is about fit for purpose and measurements need to include a level of self-reflection, as well as evidence of application and positive results in the workplace.

Include application of principles learned to real situations or challenges in the workplace. Let senior management critique recommendations, decisions, or plans and provide feedback. Think carefully about the questions to ask as part of any measurement, and include opportunities to keep improving the program.

If the program is not going to be repeated, consideration may go to videoing components of it and using it as self-directed learning for new members of the target audience so as to keep impacting the culture. If the program is to be an annual event, then thought needs to be given to optimizing the energy generated from having multiple groups exposed to a similar learning experience.

Career Development – Conducting A Training Needs Analysis

Having been a trainer in Singapore for the last 15 years, it’s been somewhat surprising to me that many organizations do not have the capacity to choose their trainings properly.

Why should an organization know this?

  • you clearly define your goals in developing a training program
  • you save more time in selecting a potential training provider
  • you are certain of the deliverables and can identify them
  • you can justify the reason why you chose your provider
  • you can chart your training progress more easily

If you happen to be in charge of training needs, you should actually pay attention to the following broad areas:

  1. What problems do you have in the organization? or if you think you haven’t got any problems…
  2. What goals would you like to achieve for your organization?
  3. How much time do you have to conduct the training?
  4. What measurement system would you like?

What problems do you have in the organization?
I’ve had some people who have really been up front about their organizational issues. Of course, the best person to talk about this would not just be one person. To get a fair picture about the issues at hand, it would be best to talk to a range of people. However, if you already have done an employee survey, it would be clear what their main complaints are. These problems are often segmented into two parts. The first part is a skill issue, which must be tagged to the appropriate trainer. After all, if your employee is unfamiliar with legal procedures, or company operations, then training is a must. The second part is an attitude and culture issue. In reality, too few training companies or consultants really know how to transform attitude and culture. If you are up for a discussion regarding this, please speak with my corporate training division.

If you have some difficulty, it is possible for use to initiate a study of your organization and offer some ideas as to how to get a better picture of your company’s training needs.

Broadly, here are a few training needs that we hear frequently:

    li>inter-department conflicts due to ineffective communication;
  • inexperienced new but intelligent leaders;
  • dipping of morale;
  • productivity needs to be raised but don’t know how;
  • the need to help employees develop life skills in general;
  • enabling employees to create value;
  • awareness of potential safety hazards in the workplace
  • … and the list goes on

How much time do you have to conduct the training?
This is where training managers in companies balk a bit. They know very well that in order to have a good training, the amount of time factors in. But, they don’t always want to give the impression that there is a lot of time to spare because some training providers just give a week worth of games instead of real content.

Personally, my rule of thumb is simple. Given a set of clear competencies, you will need at least half a day to cover ONE competency. Most of the time, the number of competencies a company wants to cover is way too broad. Example, the issue of resolving inter-departmental conflicts often requires the following:

  • Ability to empathize and put oneself into another’s position
  • Ability to ask questions in a manner that enables the other person to feel understood, not undermined
  • Ability to clarify one’s point with another person
  • Ability to diffuse tense situations by building effective rapport
  • Ability to read another person’s intent
  • Ability to consider a person’s personality style in communication, particularly in stressful situations
  • and more…

So, we have 6 competencies to cover. They have to be tagged to specific deliverables (e.g. a skill set that helps to improve the ability to put oneself in another’s position) that are agreed upon. Which are most important to you, if you only have 2 days, because this will take at least 3 days to teach, demonstrate and measure.

If it is a non-tangible set of capabilities like a team building training, it should be at least 2 days with rigorous activities to demonstrate team communication and allow collaboration.

What measurement system would you like?
Ah… my favorite topic. There’s the post training survey, which is great for immediate feedback about the training, but says nothing about effectiveness and transfer of learning. Back in the office, a segment of seminar attendees still need coaching (1) to refresh their memory as to what can be applied to the workplace; (2) for better support with new skills. Training seminars are NOT a substitute for coaching!

The trouble begins when we know there is no transfer likely. I mean, honestly, how am I supposed to know if your leaders are going to do what I taught? You need to give me more power to measure this. For example, add a requirement for them to complete a particular task that will be assessed in their regular annual employee appraisal. Or, peg the achievement of certain competencies to the way in which you get a raise or get promoted. To ensure these are done, you will need a much more comprehensive suite of measurement tools and systems. Some of them will require a longer time to implement but essentially, the more effective the transfer, the higher the cost of such a measurement.

Once again, if you have questions regarding training in your organization, drop by at my corporate training division.