STEMming the Science Communication Gap

I am calling the lack of effective communication between STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and non-STEM professionals the ‘Science Communication Gap.’ In addition, STEM professionals are outnumbered by non-STEM professionals. In 2011, STEM professionals represented only 25% of the overall professional workforce (http://dpeaflcio.org/wp-content/uploads/The-STEM-workforce-2012.pdf). I think a big contributing factor to poor science literacy in the U.S. is that STEM professionals are not trained in how to communicate effectively with non-STEM professionals. This ‘Science Communication Gap’ is a big problem because decisions impacting society are being made without regard for the STEM perspective. As a result, many decisions are faulty and often not in the best interest of society in the long run.

STEM professionals are often at the forefront of discovering challenges that need to be addressed. Not being able to communicate the action needed effectively to non-STEM professionals results in delays in addressing challenges. This has been the case with man-made global warming as an example. Man-made global warming was discussed by Bell Labs scientist Dr. Frank C. Baxter in 1958 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0lgzz-L7GFg). Here we are 56 years later still trying to get concerted action to address man-made global warming – talk about ineffective communication to influence action!

Why do STEM professionals have trouble communicating effectively with non-STEM professionals? One reason is that STEM majors have such packed curricula that there is no room for the social science courses needed for effective communication with non-STEM majors. While STEM majors do learn about communication skills, this learning is limited to communicating with other STEM-trained professionals. A second reason is that this limited communication is often reinforced on-the-job where STEM professionals are again primarily communicating with other STEM-trained professionals. Those that have the natural skill to communicate with non-STEM professionals typically advance to management and executive positions. A third reason is that the STEM-trained managers and executives exascerbate the problem. STEM-trained managers and executives tend to “translate” content from STEM professionals for their non-STEM colleagues rather than coach the STEM professional on how better communicate. This tendency prevents STEM professionals from developing the communication skills needed to effectively influence non-STEM professionals.

STEM professionals have been key contributors to products that have improved the quality of living. STEM professionals don’t need to spread the word about products that improve the quality of living because marketers and sales people step in to do that. Everyone wants to communicate good news. However, when STEM professionals discover unintended consequences like man-made global warming, no one (or at least very few) wants to communicate bad news. Not even the media when the negative impacts are gradual over a long timespan or uncertain. Therefore, STEM professionals end up being the ones who need to talk about the unintended consequences. STEM professionals are ineffective at communicating to non-STEM professionals because they are burdened by the ‘curse of knowledge’ and lack of training in the social sciences. The ‘curse of knowledge’ refers to the tendency to use words that are acceptable in the context of science but often conjure the wrong emotions outside the context of science. For example, ‘probability’ is a well-understand concept in the context of science but is viewed with skepticism outside this context.

This post presents five ways that STEM professionals can improve communication to non-STEM professionals. These five strategies are derived from findings on how to educate adults. As Dr. Barbara Martin says, ‘If you want to be a good teacher, you have to know a little about how students learn. Different learning theories focus on different aspects of learning but there are some areas of agreement. Understanding and using some of the key principles of learning can improve your teaching.’ (See http://stem.aihec.org/Projects/NREL/Resource%20Library/IREC-Teaching-Matters-12-15-10-Web.pdf). I reviewed the latest thinking on educating adults and distilled down to five key principles that I have applied to the challenge of STEM professionals influencing non-STEM professionals. The five principles are as follows:

  1. Get to know the people you need to influence
  2. Design relevant and compelling messages
  3. Make the communication experience memorable
  4. Empower the audience to act
  5. Be an entertaining communicator

The first principle, getting to know the people you need to influence, is about putting yourself in their shoes to understand who they are better. You can do this with an intellectual exercise or by interviewing people to gather input. As an intellectual exercise, first identify who is it that you most need to influence in the audience. Second, create a generic persona for a typical audience member (1 is enough but no more than 3). The persona should include age, occupation, beliefs important to the topic, and a name that can be made-up or the name of someone you know who represents the persona well. Third, generate a profile for the persona by answering questions from the persona’s perspective like the following:

  • What do they do on an average day?
  • What typical pressures do they experience?
  • What are their frustrations?
  • What distracts them?
  • What holds their interest?
  • How do they talk? At work? With family and friends?
  • What things do they care about?
  • Where are they on your topic? Level and accuracy of understanding and knowledge?

If you are having trouble developing a persona or developing the profile, then you can think of people you know who most closely represent the persona and interview them to gather input. Fourth, and finally, draw insights from your profile findings by answering the following questions:

  • What does the profile tell me about what will not work in influencing them?
  • What does the profile tell me about what might work in influencing them?
  • What do I need to understand better before I try to influence them?

The second principle, designing relevant and compelling messages for the people you need to influence, is about articulating how they will benefit and what they need to do to receive the benefit. Using the insights from the profile of who you need to influence, first capture what is in it for them by finishing one of these phrases:

  • You should care about this because…
  • This is the most important point because…
  • You’ll need to know this if…

Second, brainstorm what you need to say by completing the following three exercises for your persona(s):

  • List all the potential questions your persona is likely to have and answer them
  • List all the things the persona needs to understand but likely is not going to ask
  • Describe the purpose of your message and what action the audience needs to take

Finally, develop a core message from this work. A core message comes from getting to the essence of what the audience needs to hear which is different from ‘dumbing down.’ The core message answers what your point is and why it matters to the people you are influencing. For help, Garr Reynolds provides an effective method for developing a core message in Chapter 3 ‘Planning Analog’ of his book ‘PresentationZen.’

The third principle, making the communication experience memorable, is about getting people’s attention in a world in which many things are competing for people’s attention every day. In his book ‘Made to Stick,’ Chip and Dan Heath identify six things ideas that stick have in common. These are simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotions, and stories. Garr Reynolds puts these concepts to use in his book ‘PresentationZen.’ For example, simplicity is about a core message that gets to the essence of the communication without ‘dumbing down.’ Unexpectedness is about using the element of surprise to get people’s attention. Concreteness is about getting away from language that has specific meaning in the context of STEM. Concreteness is about using natural language that works in the context of the audience. Concreteness is also about using examples with real things rather than abstractions to support your messages. Credibility is about using data and quotes from people that the audience would respect. Emotion is about making the audience feel something which can be done through images and stories. Finally, you need to craft a story which is how people have always communicated. For help, see Chapter 4 ‘Crafting the Story’ in ‘PresentationZen.’ A story identifies a problem, the causes of the problem, the conflict surrounding the causes, and then takes the person you are influencing on a journey to resolve the conflicts.

The fourth principle, empowering the audience to act, is about how you deliver your story. Adults don’t like being told what to do. It is better to inform adults in a way that compels them to take the desired action on their own initiative. To do this, present information in a way that is thought-provoking but simple so people are concerned and have a desire to take action based on a clear understanding of your messages. For help, Garr Reynolds provides design principles in his book ‘PresentationZen’ (Chapter 5 ‘Simplicity: Why It Matters’ and Chapter 6 ‘Presentation Design Principles and Techniques’). Applying these design principles in delivering your story is a proven way to empower the audience to take desired actions.

The fifth and final principle, be an entertaining communicator, is about facilitating a good emotional bond with the people you are trying to influence. Adults like to laugh and are drawn to people who can make them laugh. Adults also like to learn things that are useful to them but the learning needs to be made easy for them. Making learning easy takes a well-crafted core message and story as well as the use of simple visual aids as discussed above. Finally, being an entertaining communicator is also about being able to read and respond to the audience as you are communicating. This takes flexibility and practice.

If you would like to learn more about how STEM professionals can influence and communicate effectively with non-STEM professionals, then contact Valerie Patrick at Fulcrum Connection LLC (412-742-9675 or valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com). Ask about the first-time client offer.

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