12:45 p.m. Keynote Talk
- Introduction, Alan Leshner, Chief Executive Officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science
Why We Can’t Trust Our Intuitions: Communication as a Science, Arthur “Skip” Lupia, University of Michigan
We work hard to discover and convey insights that could be of great public value and yet the outcomes … are not what we hope for.
- You can’t rely on journal articles and papers to reach the public.
- Can we both “stick to the science” and communicate with the public?
- We work on the theory that if we tell this audience what we know they’ll change how they think or behave. It’s a great theory… but …
- The outcome is a little different. Audiences fail to pay attention to what we say, or the things they remember aren’t what we wanted them to remember.
- The usual explanation: It’s the audience’s problem.
- The problem is us.
- Suppose when you were young you lived near the woods and spent a lot of time there – you are an expert on the woods. You take a friend to the woods and you get separated. You know the woods and can get out but your friend is trapped. It’s your job to get your friend out of the woods. Problem: You have to know the woods – but you also have to know where your friend is. Problem with experts: We make assumptions about where the audience is. We don’t really know, so the advice we give isn’t connecting.
- Even though we have great passion we misunderstand our target audiences make decisions, about how and when we can persuade. The operating assumption ought to be: FAILURE IS COMMON.
- What can we do?
- Biology defines the possibilities for communication. It doesn’t change its rules for you and your position.
- Social science studies of persuasion reveal the requirements for success.
Persuasion: to move by argument or demonstration; to cause to know something, to teach. Not spin, not manipulation.
Necessary conditions for persuasion:
- It starts in the brain cells. When clusters of brain cells get physically close to one another, we experience it as learning. No fuel, no growth; no growth, no closer together;no closer together, no persuasion.
- Attention: It’s scarce. It has to do with working memory, and it has a very limited capacity (people can remember 7 things, plus or minus 2). It’s physically impossible to remember/think about more things than that. And we’re competing with everything else people are thinking about at the time – and with ourselves. If we say too many interesting things at once, people can’t possibly remember it all.
- You have to prevail over everything else competing for their attention, which means:
- Speak to core values, fears and aspirations.
- Be concrete and specific.
- What does a non-scientific audience want to know?
- Make it close to home. Speak about what people care about. Which means you have to know what that is.
- Make it concrete and immediate. Abstractions are hard to think about, so is uncertainty. Good approach: “Here’s a way of thinking about something that helps you solve a problem you already have.”
- Outcomes must be achievable or people will give up. If your goal is to get people to act or think or do, tie your story to something they can actually achieve. That gives them an incentive to think about it, and push those clusters of brain cells closer together.
- If you win the battle, what will they take away? Learning is incorporating new knowledge with existing knowledge, and credibility is important.
- Think about what people hear when they have different values. When language has different meanings, you can get a nasty edge. People think you’re spinning, manipulating, tricking them.
- Communication strategies that work in the classroom or with your peers can fail in a politicized public environment.
- To establish credibility so people take your words seriously,understand:
- It’s not about you. Credibility is domain-specific and bestowed by an audience. You may be credible as a scientist (in your domain), but if you speak outside your domain people won’t believe you, and if you don’t share their values, they won’t believe you. Speak to your field, not someone else’s. Establish shared values, demonstrate how you’re like your audience, and they are more likely to bestow credibility on you and believe what you say.
We can make presentations that please us – or we can try to communicate with people. It’s up to us.
(Part 3 follows)