deliciously technical and controversial

My meetings started here this morning. As my grandfather would have said it, "We couldn't have had a prettier day." And, it's AUGUST.  In DC.

Gorgeous weather aside, I had the pleasure of working with a group of scientists gathered in DC this week to share their climate change research and talk about the challenges they see in doing this work going forward.

As is so often the case with highly-skilled experts, the technical challenges are big-- no doubt-- but those don't scare them. The issues that keep them up at night are around talking about their findings, building understanding and acceptance, gaining support, and, ultimately, seeing behavior change. In short, all of the communications stuff. I learned this week that answering the common question, "what do you do?" can start a debate in a bar.

The vested man above is Paul Ollig. He's a National Park Service employee and the Chief of Interpretation for the National Mall and Memorial Parks.  He's a fantastic storyteller-- if you ever have a chance to walk the Mall with him, you're guaranteed to learn something new. So, Paul led a tour today for this group of climate scientists to talk about climate change impacts to the Mall and the city and park's adaptation efforts-- including the construction of a massive levee to protect the monuments from storm surges.

Before setting off, he opened up a discussion on what techniques are effective when talking about climate science. The insights shared by the group were great-- and I think can be a good starting point to communicating any highly technical and controversial material.

  1. Humanize your work. Describe why you personally are drawn to the specifically challenges. What experiences or beliefs lead you to this point?
  2. Chunk the message. Talking with someone who is incredibly knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their work can feel like being sprayed with a fire hose. Be able to chunk your message into "bite site" points and know how to sequence them in case people ask for more information.
  3. Avoid trigger words (audience-dependent). Know your audience and what trigger words might cause them to shut down and stop listening. For some, "climate change" are those trigger words that have such a strong association that it might be difficult to overcome someone's position. The goal often is to talk about the impacts, the risks, the behavior changes needed, etc. Being flexible enough to do that with more general language can keep a much-needed conversation going.
  4. Make it visual. Snow, I learned, is a visually compelling way to talk about climate change. What are the pictures that help people understand the risks and impacts of your issue?  Use those.
  5. Take opportunities to talk with kids. Of course, any conversation with a kid has to be age appropriate-- and ideally pre-approved by a parent or teacher.  The point is though that kids help you test how accessible your message is. Can a 5th grader understand your point? Kids will also has great questions and will typically come to a conversation with fewer preconceived ideas. If nothing else, you both might learn something.

One of my colleagues has this great picture of Einstein with a quote that reads, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."  I love this because it's so true. Times (many, many times) in the past that I've stumbled over technical messages have come down to precisely this problem.  My understanding was more superficial that I realized. Engaging with an active listener can quickly reveal those holes.  

So, if there was one overarching recommendation, it would be to know your topic well.  Know it so well that you can avoid jargon or terms that only another technician would understand. My key takeaway from meeting with these awesome scientists this week is that they're not out to impress anyone with their smarts-- though their knowledge and skills certainly are impressive.  They've trying to make a difference in the world and you can only do that by bringing others along.

talking nerdy

Cloud Print  by Yangyang Pan

Cloud Print by Yangyang Pan

In this awesome TedGlobal presentation, Melissa Marshall shares a simple and elegant formula for more effective communication between scientists and engineers and, um, the rest of us. I encourage you to watch the short talk and won't spoil the fun by spilling the beans on the formula itself.

However... I'll say that her points apply to the science community, as well as, technical folks in a wide array of disciplines-- information technology and anything related to the cloud, health and bleh-insurance, facilities and infrastructure, and just about anything else you can think of that truly required understanding calculus and not just doing the minimum to pass.

In working with technical clients to come up with content and communications that resonate beyond their internal meetings with each other, there are two really, key things.  

  1. In my experience, we must fiercely and unrelentingly tie the purpose and benefits back to something any general smart person can understand.  This isn't "dumb-ing it down." That's a poke in the eye that doesn't get conversations off on the right foot.  Instead, there is some important underlying purpose for why technical folks are doing the important work that they are.  What is that?
  2. The second is helping manage the level of detail. Highly technical folks often can't actually tell the difference between a headline and a detail.  They're too close to their work to effectively differentiate.  To help here, I work with clients to outline all of important thoughts they want to share. After a first pass to streamline and sort everything into the right buckets, you can then have a more objective conversation about what is appropriate to share.  For most general audiences, content should only be at the highest (most outdented) level and include 5-6 points. And maybe, just maybe, you can go one level down for a new program pitch or Congressional hearing.  All the rest can be saved for questions or just admired in the notes.

Big hugs to all the science and techie types out there. We love ya... we just don't always understand ya.