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.