Where Scientists Go Astray, Advice on How to Speak to be Better Understood

Amy Aines shared advice for how scientists can speak to be better understood In a recent interview by Anne Janzer, author of Writing to be Understood. Amy’s insights apply to all kinds of communication. She talked about:

  • Why scientists, in particular, can struggle when presenting to non-scientific decision-makers
  • How mismatched paradigms keep us from communicating effectively
  • Why the scientific tendency to lead with details and uncertainty can backfire
  • How great ideas won’t do any good if they aren’t communicated to the right people

She also talked about the process of co-authoring a book with her husband Roger, which she agreed to do before they became engaged. She tells a wonderful story about how the only friction during the book collaboration process was over the efficient use of office supplies!

Anne: Hi, Amy. Thank you for joining me to talk about your book, Championing Science, and what you’ve been doing with it.

Amy: It’s terrific to have a chance to get together with you, because we both care a lot about helping people be understood. For me, it’s about the spoken word. For you, the written word. Together, that’s what enables people to get their ideas across.

On Writing vs. Speaking

Anne: Exactly. There’s overlap, but it’s a different set of skills to do in real time. I think it may be easier to do in writing because you have revision, which you don’t have when speaking.

Amy: Good point. That means that when you’re speaking, you have to have forethought, and you have to practice. What happens all too often, particularly with the scientists and technologists that I pay attention to, is that they’re so caught up in the details of their ideas that they get tripped up in all of that. Instead of understanding how to bring their ideas up to the surface, so those of us who don’t have our scuba tanks on can be there with them and understand.

Anne: Precisely. When you’re speaking, it’s easier if your audience is there with you. You get to see the dazed and confused looks on their faces if they are dazed and confused. Writers don’t get to see that. It is harder because they have to do it in real time.

Amy: There are often times when speakers are so caught up in what they’re saying that they don’t notice. That’s one of the things that’s important to learn: not just to notice, but what are the cues to pay attention to. I just launched the first of three online courses aimed at teaching those fundamental skills. It’s really exciting.

About the Book Championing Science

Anne: You’re doing very important work, thank you. Let me ask you about your book, Championing Science. Describe to me the core audience for this book and what you hope to achieve with it.

Amy: The book is aimed at anybody who is in the science, engineering, and technology arena who wants to be effective with decision makers. There are a lot of great books about communicating science to the public. What my husband Roger and I focused on in writing Championing Sciencewas talking to decision-makers, talking in the workplace, helping to get your ideas across to smart people who aren’t necessarily experts who are in a position to advance your work.

The inspiration for the book comes from our shared belief that we need all the great ideas out there to help change the world.

If you’ve got ideas but can’t express them well, they can go unnoticed. Ideas have to be heard and understood if they’re going to drive action. For us, the goal was to shorten the learning curve. We are interested in reaching graduate students, post-docs, and early career STEM professionals to shave a number of years off what you ultimately learn as you get out into the workplace.

Anne: Yes, speed them down the path to being more effective communicating and advocating for what’s important.

The Co-Authorship Proposal

Amy: Absolutely. Roger’s a scientist. He’s been with Lawrence Livermore National Labs for more than thirty-five plus years. The book was his idea. He pitched it to me on a long car-ride to see my parents. That was before he proposed marriage. He thought, “We should write a book together!”

Anne: One of them is the acid test for the other.

Amy: He would tell you that he was pretty sure he knew what I’d say when he asked me to marry him, but he was not so sure about the book request. It ended up being six years from start to finish, with lots of interruptions along the way. Our opportunity was to interview scientists, identify good communicators, and really zero in on the key principles that make someone effective.

Fueled by his favorite Gingerade Kombucha, Roger is looking at dozens of colored edit tabs on the book manuscript

Fueled by his favorite Gingerade Kombucha, Roger contemplates the abundance of edit tabs

That’s the nature of the book. It talks about what we call eleven tenets for championing science. It also reinforces the importance of becoming self-aware and self-correcting. That’s what it takes to get good at effectively communicating complex ideas.

Anne: Yes, it’s a learning curve like anything else. It may not have all the prestige of learning how to splice a gene, but it’s a learning curve nonetheless.

Amy: One of the things that makes it tricky is when you think about how scientists and technologists are minted, when they become experts. When they go all the way through PhD programs, they are in such an echo chamber, typically for a fairly long time. I like to say, “It’s not your fault if you’re not good at this.” You’ve had professors making you drink from a fire hose. You were taught that you have to value precision and accuracy above everything. I want my engineers and scientists to be precise! But when you’re communicating ideas that people don’t know enough about, you can’t start at precision. You have to balance precision and impact. That’s an important principle.

Anne: There’s something they call the Curse of Knowledge: It’s very hard to remember not knowing the thing you know. When you’ve been so immersed in graduate studies, everyone around you all knows that stuff, it’s like the water you’re swimming in. It’s really hard to remember what it was like before you were in the water.

Mismatched Paradigms

Amy: Absolutely. We talk about that in slightly different terms. We talk about it as the notion of paradigm. There’s always some kind of paradigm gap between you and the people listening to you.

A paradigm is all the things you know about a subject: what you’ve studied, what you’ve researched, what you’ve learned from the people you’ve talked to, and the beliefs and mindsets that are formed as a result of that. It goes beyond knowledge. It’s really about how you think about your topic. When you start to become conscious of that notion for yourself, as a scientist, you start to ask yourself, who’s listening to me, where are they, and what’s that gap? It helps you understand how to adjust what you say.

Anne: That’s an interesting lens to put on it. We’re all operating with different paradigms, and without understanding your own, you can’t understand what other people’s might be.

Amy: And without understanding just how much it gets in the way. It is, in our view, the foundational thing that gets in the way. Layer on top of that the fact that you’re a detail-oriented person if this is what you choose to study in your life. The typical way a scientist talks is with long, complicated sentences that go on and on and on and on—sometimes they even speak in monotone voices, so you get on and one [droning..] Roger would talk often about the seminars he would listen to or the conferences he’d been at, and just how pitiful the speakers were. We’re trying to change that—in part, to make it easier to go to conferences!

Anne: That, too, is a worthy mission.

Amy: Talk about impact, right? Also, in today’s world where we are all, because of Covid, spending so much time on Zoom, often it’s just your voice and a tiny picture of you that people are listening to. Learning how to communicate clearly, effectively, succinctly—all of those things are so important, and in many ways, even more so right now.

Anne: It’s really about respect for your audience. Put it in that perspective and it makes you think of it differently.

Amy: I don’t use the term audience often. I use the term listeners. I do it purposefully, because I want to remind the person speaking of two things.

1) It’s their responsibility to be understood.

2) They need to keep those people interested in listening to them. It’s a conversation, it’s not just get up and go through your slides and never look up or check in with people. It’s a dialog.

Communicating Effectively in a Time of Great Uncertainty

Amy: The other thing that makes it feel good to have this work and the book out in the world—it was published by the University of California Press in January of 2019—is that it’s becoming so clear that scientists need to be able to communicate more persuasively.

I sat in on a webinar this morning that Quartz put together. One of the speakers on the panel took my question, which was, “What advice do you have for scientists to be more effective communicating with decision makers?” What he said was “Scientists don’t feel like they know something unless they know it with certainty.” If they can’t be 100%, they tend to explain what they know by talking about what they don’t know. Instead of saying, “We know this for sure right now, based on all the data we have … we know that it’s a six-to-one improvement in the well-being of your co-workers if all of you wear masks when you go back into an office space. We know that.” Say that instead of saying, “We can’t say with certainty that everyone will be safe.”

Start with what you know. Acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers. Acknowledge that more data continues to stream in, but give people the benefit of what you do know. I thought his answer was really compelling.

Anne: That makes a lot of sense. That desire to be completely accurate is probably beaten into you in graduate school, as you defend your thesis. It has to be flipped on its head, not to be inaccurate, but … There’s research that the more people hear something, or read something, the more times something appears, the greater the impression they have of it being true. If you are hesitant to say that thing that of which you are pretty darned sure, you are taking away the frequency of the things that people should be hearing, that we are pretty sure is true.

Chasing accuracy to that degree can be damaging because it gives more airtime to the doubt and uncertainty. If people aren’t paying a whole lot of attention, the thing they heard most is the thing they are going to remember. If they hear all the doubts, that’s what they’re going to remember. You have a duty to share what you know.

Amy: I agree completely. For scientists in particular, recognizing that that voice is so important to have in the world is new to them. They don’t fully appreciate what gets in their way. To make the shift, they have to understand it. It starts way back when you’re doing your first science fair. Think about science posters from grade school: they’re so complicated. They have all kinds of stuff on them. If you think about it, it’s minted in from a very early age.

The other thing I see as an issue, and one I try to help scientists understand, is this:

You might think that if you don’t sound academic and show all your work, people are going to doubt your rigor and expertise. That’s not true.

What’s true is that if you can articulate things succinctly and clearly, and if you can take people along with you and layer information when they’re ready to hear it, you are going to be much more effective in your work.

Anne: That’s right. If you’re doing the peer-reviewed publications, go ahead. Put in all the stuff you need to put in. If you’re for the masses, if you’re writing for the larger audience and not just your peers, absolutely.

The Co-Author Story

Anne: I have to ask, and I’m curious. You wrote this book with your husband. Tell me about that process!

Amy: We had a lot of fun. We would joke often that we were nerding out together. It was such a fun experience. It was easy for us to do, in part because we had different areas of expertise. We mapped out our outline, we knew which chapters we were each taking the lead on. We respect each other a lot.

We have very different voices. If you read our book, you will know what Roger wrote and what I wrote. Very different styles and voices, but complementary. We had a blast.

Our one bit of contention was over the editing process. It had nothing to do with the words. He likes those little tabs that have a colored end on them. I am more efficient. I would flag a page and draw lines to the various things that needed to be changed. He wanted one tab per change. I said, “Okay, but we’re running out of tabs!”

It was important to him, and it was easy for me to give on that. It was a great experience for us to do together. We still do a fair amount together these days, but he’s got a day job as the chief scientist at Lawrence Livermore working on climate issues. I tend to do more of what you and I are spending time on than he has time to do. But we do still collaborate and give each other a lot of support.

Anne: I love that your biggest disagreement was over office supplies!

Amy: The use of office supplies. I was trying to be more efficient. Yes.

Anne: That is a great story.

Beyond the Book

Anne: The book has been out for a year and a half. What has been the impact of the book. What have you seen?

Amy: Maybe one of the most fun thins was the invitation from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. We were asked to do a couple webinars for them. We did one on Eleven Principles for Championing Science and another on Building Trusted Relationships and Influence with Sponsors.

We were also asked to do a full-day workshop for students at UCLA, and have been doing a number of speaking engagements at post-doc events. Stanford has us lined up to do their virtual keynote for the next postdoc seminar. I share all those appearances to say that we’re getting word out into the world. More people are learning about the book.

The next step for me has been the opportunity to create online curriculum. What I really see, Anne, is a curriculum gap. Even if there were communication courses to take, if you’re working on your PhD, chances are you’re not going to spend time on that. So, I think the opportunity to have an even bigger impact is through online learning. There are great platforms out there.

I’ve just launched my first course, called How to Bridge Communication Gaps. I created it on a platform called Kajabi, which was a learning curve for me, but a terrific format for putting a course together. I have two more in the works. The goal is to get to more post-docs and early-career STEM professionals.

Anne: Yes, the courses are a different way to reach people, it’s a different way to scale your message.

Amy: When it comes to learning these skills, it’s one thing to tell you what to do. I spend a lot of time explaining how to do it. Literally, how do you have this conversation? What are the questions you ask? What specifically do you watch for when you’re looking for someone’s nonverbal feedback. I get really specific about this, which would be difficult to do in a book. Having online curriculum and the use of video makes it easier to drill that in. At some point, I’ll do some things that are live with students, but I really wanted to have evergreen material that I think of as the fundamental things you need to know.

I’m basically distilling my 40 years—20 spent in corporate roles and the last 20 spent consulting, working predominantly with technical folks, scientists and engineers in the tech and biotech industries. I know what’s going to make a difference, and that’s what I’ve been working to put in this program.

Anne: So you started with the book, and the process of writing the book codified it. As you wrote the book, did you really distill your tenets and practices that then are feeding everything else?

Amy: Yes, those principles are the core of the curriculum. Communications made sense to me from my earliest days. I remember thinking, “This is such an easy major.” Then I got out into the business world, and I realized that I knew things that so many people didn’t know or understand, that made a real difference.

The Unexpected Result of the Book

Amy: Writing the book with Roger helped me appreciate the value of what I know. Now, taking it out into the world and teaching, and lecturing, and building workshops and creating online materials, is helping me feel that, at this stage in my career, I can have a bigger reach and impact. If the people who learn from me are better able to make their ideas happen, the world can be a better place. That is really motivating.

Working on the courses during this COVID situation has kept me feeling driven by a purpose and energized despite the gloom and doom overlay we’re all dealing with right now.

Anne: There’s nothing quite like having a purpose, a future orientation, and knowing that the work you’re doing is important.

Amy: I think it saved my sanity.

Anne: These are strange times indeed. Having something you feel is for a greater long-term good keeps us going.

Amy: Absolutely. I’ve always been a cheerleader. I like helping people be successful. I do a lot of resumé support for people whose kids are graduating. I like helping people figure out how to tell their story. This is an extension of that part of who I am. It feels very purposeful. I’m really glad Roger had the idea to write the book because I never thought about putting it in a book. What we were able to do together is laying a foundation for some important things to happen.

Her Advice for Others

Anne: Yes, indeed. Let me ask if there’s any advice you would give to someone else who wanted to write a book that had a similar purpose—not necessarily scientific communication. Someone who has a message and a purpose and want to write a book. What would you advise?

Amy: I would say two things:
1. Believe in yourself.
2. Don’t stop writing until you finish it.

It’s really easy for people to doubt themselves as writers, and doubt that what they have to say matters. That’s an opportunity to reflect, and to trust that the reason you are inspired to write is that people need to read it.

Anne: Yes. I wonder if it helped that, being part of a team, you each reinforced the value of the other’s contribution, and that maybe kept the flywheel moving.

Amy: It absolutely did. It was even bigger than that for us. We started working on the book in 2013. We were married in 2014. Shortly after we were married, Roger was diagnosed with colon cancer. We had a big curve ball. The book was something that gave us another purpose as he was going through everything he had to go through. I’m glad to tell you that he’s fine. He’s survived it, it’s been five years. But the book was something that helped us have something else to think about and focus on. It’s also the reason it took six years: we had some interruptions in that process. But it helped sustain us, and gave us both a sense of why it was so incredible that we found each other in the world, because it is a second marriage for both of us.

Anne: That’s wonderful. So, you’re doing this wonderful, purposeful book for the world at large, but it rebounds on you, in the sense that it gives you that purpose and something to get you through. Wonderful story, thank you.

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If you’re interested in learning more:

Want to improve the way you communicate your science to non-expert decision makers?  Check out How to Bridge Communication Gaps.