In Explaining Research, I strongly recommend that scientists and engineers consider communication training. To give a better idea of the nature and benefits of such training, I asked an expert—Carol Schadelbauer, Vice President, Health & Science Advocacy at Burness Communications—to address questions researchers typically ask about the process. Carol is director of the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute, which has successfully enhanced the communication skills of many hundreds of scientists and health professionals. I think you’ll find her answers a terrific guide:
I give seminars all the time, and I teach undergraduate classes. Why would I need communication training?
Experience teaching or giving seminars is both a blessing and a curse. It means you’re probably comfortable speaking to others (including large groups), which is a hurdle that many have to overcome. The curse comes from the fact that you are used to a “captive” audience that is already interested in your work—in great detail! The structure of classroom teaching lends itself to “lectures” not to “the bottom line.” Opportunities to speak with media or decision makers almost never last as long as you’d like and rarely follow the path you expect.
Excellent communications training should refine the all-too-rare skill of describing your work and its importance in a concise, effective and memorable way. You’ll learn that audience matters and must be identified before you prepare messages. But how do your messages stand out above the noise of the barrage of news, advertising and requests? Your job is to make your work and your message rise above this cacophony and motivate people with power, resources and a platform to act. Training enables you to do this and helps you be prepared for the unexpected.
I don’t talk to the media very much. Would training still help me?
Whether you’re talking with reporters, policymakers, funders, stakeholders, the public or your grandmother or brother, this type of experience is not to be missed. Learning to be memorable with impact is a valuable life lesson that can have a powerful effect on so many people. Adding clarity and a sense of urgency to your work will engage a whole new cadre of supporters, allies and even champions. Perhaps more importantly, communications skills can also teach you how to proactively engage with media. After all, if you aren’t out there communicating the importance of your work, who will be? And more importantly, will they be doing so accurately?
What do training sessions typically consist of?
Trainings teach what to say and how to say it. They teach how to stay in control and not let the interviewer or questioner take over. Most importantly, they teach you how to be impactful, and if necessary, persuasive in any important situation.
Trainings through the Burness Health & Science Advocacy Institute range from a few hours to four days to a several-week course and are designed for health professionals, researchers, scientists, students and a host of other types of advocates. They are designed to be as engaging and practical as possible. Our whole goal is to equip you to be as memorable as possible. We work with large and small groups and individuals. We often use cameras to focus on delivery skills and hone in on messages. We role play with one-on-one interviews, talk shows, remote interviews, policymaker meetings, testifying before legislative committees, and even mock cocktail parties.
What are some of the main communication problems or misconceptions you see in people you’re training?
What we love about researchers is that they have a passion for their work that is infectious. However, one of the biggest challenges is that more often than not, we see incredibly passionate and articulate researchers assume the role of a serious and often detached academic when they meet with reporters, policymakers and other stakeholders. They are compelled to be boring because of fear. Fear of saying the wrong thing; fear that their peers will think less of them; fear that the reporter will take things out of context. The best way to avoid this is to ask these questions in preparation for an interview: Why did I go into this field of work? Why am I driven toward this scientific discovery? Humanizing you and your science by opening your audience up to your passions is a highly effective tool that results in immediate engagement with your audience, and instant credibility. Be yourself and have fun.
One other area stands out among researchers and health experts: They love process. But the media does not. It takes “process” to do science—from hypothesis, to methodology, to results to conclusion. Reporters, policymakers and most everyone really just want the bottom line. What happened? What were your results? And also, what does this mean to me? Why should I care about this right now? We tell folks to obsess about accuracy (always be honest!), but let go of precision. Forget the details in between. And please leave your jargon at the door! Use simple, vivid words!
How do I know when I’m “trained?”
The most common feedback we get at the end of a training session is this: “I wish I had this training years ago.” Or, “Graduates students need this. Early-career professionals need this. Senior researchers need this!” Like any skill, there is no point at which you’re “done” learning. And this stuff takes practice and lots of it. But you’ll know when you’re ready for an interview or important meeting or presentation if you’ve adequately prepared messages, and drilled yourself (or asked someone to drill you) on the toughest questions you imagine you’d ever get. As one broadcast journalist has said, if an intelligent 12-year-old could understand what you’ve said, then you’re ready!
How have others found the training useful?
We’re lucky to have a chance to track some of those we’ve trained by coaching them after their trainings. We can put their training skills into practice. Some have increased confidence in their abilities to do media interviews and have done so. Others have advocated for increased funding with state and federal policymakers with success. Some have convinced a donor to provide the seed money for a new project. Some found their voice by using persuasive skills and memorable words to move their field’s leadership in a new direction—one that may impact and benefit patients and their families. One doctor told us that the training “set me on a path I couldn’t have imagined. [He] will use these skills forever.”
What resources do you recommend to help me learn more about communications?
There are a lot of great books on message, communications skills and more, including Explaining Research by Dennis. Another that comes to mind is Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath, which gives great real-life examples and tips for communicating clear ideas that are memorable!
But the most important thing to do is be a student of the media and of messages. What quotes and messages worked and didn’t work on television, in print and on radio? Why? What would you have done differently? This is a great daily exercise to develop your communications skills. Occasionally you may want to take the “bar stool test,” once described to us by one of our trainees. Sit down next to someone on a swiveling stool, and if they swivel their stool away from you after you start talking about your work, you’ll need some more practice!
Our Burness Institute blog, “Above the Noise”, attempts regularly to “be a student” of the good and bad of communications we read, hear and see every day. Check it out.