Media Training Report 1: A Simple Approach to Complex Messaging
In her book Am I Making Myself Clear? A Scientist’s Guide to Talking to the Public, former New York Times editor Cornelia Dean spent nearly 300 pages outlining why getting the message out about complex material matters. She writes:
“What we don’t know can hurt us – and does so every day. Climate change, health care policy, weapons of mass destruction, an aging infrastructure, stem cell research, endangered species, space exploration – all affect our lives as citizens and human beings in practical and profound ways. But unless we understand the science behind these issues, we cannot make reasonable decisions – and worse, we are susceptible to propaganda cloaked in scientific rhetoric.”
This is not solely a problem for scientists. Doctors, educators, economists, engineers, electricians, carpenters, professors, nonprofit managers, public policy leaders … well, you get the picture … have all acquired specialized knowledge and the language that goes along with it. More gifted communicators from any of those fields may inherently do a better job of translation. However, it is a skill that anyone can acquire with training and practice.
So, how do you boil down complex information without watering it down?
We offer a relatively simple approach – one that focuses on staying true to your material, as well as your desire to share your message to a broad audience. These tips and techniques will work for a general audience or a more specialized crowd.
If you can successfully transform abstract ideas and technical terminology to more casual conversation, then you stand to attract more eyes (and ears) to your message.
A Simple Approach to Complex Material
When researchers, scientists, policy makers, and others provide concrete explanations for the way complicated things work and why they matter, it reduces the risk of inaccuracy or misleading information and can lead to a better-informed public.
Read on to discover the tips, techniques, and examples that will help you to keep your story and message simple by playing it smart.
Keep it SIMPLE from the Start
Think of the word “simple,” and let’s start from there. The letters that make up the word “simple” serve as a reminder for how to work with the media when delivering specialized concepts to a layperson audience. We begin with the pitch.
Reporters are constantly on the search for their next story, but their busy days do not give them the luxury of combing through every pitch. With deadlines looming and expectations high, journalists want to know if what you are hawking is newsworthy – plain and simple. Here are some of the questions that run through their heads:
- Will it be of interest to our readers?
- Is it something to care about?
- Why is it news?
The most effective pitch immediately answers, “why should readers care?” in a straightforward manner. Use the news that offers the best response and know you can delve deeper into the results once you’ve secured the interview. It doesn’t hurt to frame your pitch with a particular theme that answers, “why is it news?”
You may have a newsworthy hook if your news:
- builds on existing knowledge significantly
- fills a gap in the existing knowledge
- reveals a finding that surprised researchers
- has a bearing on a current, newsy situation
- expands treatment options
- can reverse poor lifestyle choices
- brings about better understanding of human nature (such as consumer behavior)
- has a direct impact on readers’ day-to-day lives
Hopefully, you get a bite. If you haven’t already done so, you want to develop your messages, or key points, as well as the stories, statistics, and soundbites that will strengthen your message. You want to make those supporting players, as well as your overarching narrative, of “interest.” Complex, specialized language and concepts can be anything but dry to those who know how to decipher them. For others, it’s over their heads, and that is where the information stays.
We now turn to the letter “I” and techniques that inject some universal interest into your work so that it gets before the eyes of a much wider audience.
When something is interesting, it tends to hold our attention – and attention is the end game of anyone with a message.
One vital tool in your toolkit to help garner interest is your use of stories.
Researchers have found that a story that rocks not only keeps our attention, but keeps the message from going in one ear and out the other.
Is there anything in the details of your discovery, the introduction of your policy, the implementation of a new procedure, etc., that has elements of a timeless tale? If so, it’s a great way to introduce your material to the reporter and, ultimately, your audience. Here are a few to consider:
- Overcoming the odds
- Unlocking a mystery
- Vanquishing critics (As an example: Your previous results were trashed, but your latest findings proved you were right all along.)
- Discovering an unexpected solution
Also, take a closer look at case studies. Within a clinical retelling of who, what, where, when, why, and how, there are some juicy details that may or may not be immediately evident. Dig a bit deeper and connect the dots between research and everyday life.
For more than a dozen seasons, Alan Alda, an actor who had played multiple doctor roles throughout his career, did just that. In Alan Alda in Scientific American Frontiers, which aired on PBS through 2005, he delved deep into scientific inquiry and showed how a personable approach could bring science alive for a general audience. In the video below, he shares why the show worked.
The connections continue as we move on to meaning.
There’s another “M” word that is important when it comes to meaning, and that’s matter, as in “why does it?”
Say you are a doctor who has recently finished a study on a new approach to dieting. You’ve discovered all sorts of things – that men lost weight quicker than women but that all participants lowered their cholesterol and blood pressure. Your task will be to offer just enough of a big picture and sprinkle some smaller details to give the results meaning to someone’s everyday life.
Let’s take one of those tools in your message toolbox – statistics. Inevitably, a study like this is going to reveal all sorts of numbers, percentages, and ratios. While they are important for drawing scientific and medical conclusions, they can help to get the word out, too, if delivered with meaning.
The doctor is going to need some help from her audience, which will bring its knowledge to bear. Her knowledge has to piggyback on her audience’s everyday experience.
Here’s a way to make a statistic work for you:
You plan to use a statistic that 75 percent of the study participants dropped their total cholesterol by 20 percent – a significant drop – in about three months by following the diet. That statement is a bit abstract, even if the numbers are precise. You need to give the numbers some color and detail. You could offer this:
“About three-quarters of the participants saw a significant drop in cholesterol – 20 percent in 12 weeks. That’s a significant drop. With less cholesterol blocking their arteries, there are less roadblocks for oxygen to get to the heart so it can work better. Imagine that some traffic planner managed to transform your daily bumper-to-bumper commute into a smoother, and faster, ride. You’d notice it. That’s what the diet is doing for your heart.”
We need to move to the next letter, “P,” as in personal.
You might have heard the saying all politics is personal – but the same could be said about science, medicine, philosophy, public policy, economics, education, and many other disciplines. Innovation, breakthroughs, newfound logic, novel approaches, new theories, and cutting-edge practices all share some common elements. They can be abstract, but they ultimately have a concrete purpose. They affect people. So, how can you make your message personal?
- Inject emotion
If you are a scientist, consider pulling the curtain back on your day-to-day struggles, joys, discoveries, and dead-ends as you searched for the answers. Perhaps, there were skeptics who have been proven wrong. Maybe, the findings revealed a most surprising result. These stories are powerful in building connection with the audience. As viewers, readers, or listeners are thinking, “Hey, scientists are just like us,” they become engaged and interested and, therefore, more likely to add meaning to the information that you share.
- Place a person in the story
If you create public policy, make sure any announcement of a new policy draws a direct line to its effect on a typical citizen.
- Show a benefit or an improvement to life as we know it
If you are a doctor talking about a new procedure, make sure one of your main points reveals the benefit to patients in a real and measurable way, such as a shorter recovery time.
- Show the real effects of theoretical approaches
If you are an economist commenting on a new trade policy, then the specifics might intrigue students of commerce or observers interested in the international flow of money. Typically, however, for most readers, the most compelling information is whether they will have more or fewer dollars in their wallets.
If you need proof of the power of the personal, John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist and author of the book “Brain Rules” notes:
“We remember things much better the more elaborately we encode what we encounter, especially if we personalize it … the trick … is to present bodies of information so compelling that the audience does this on their own, spontaneously engaging in deep and elaborate encoding.”
So, you have a sense of how to make the story personal. Now, we move on to how to say it in a way to make your messages linger.
The “L” represents layperson’s language – a double LL, if you will.
This is not a suggestion to go so simple that the words you choose eclipse accuracy or spread misleading information. Rather, it’s about threading the needle between capturing the attentions of only a sliver of the population, as opposed to a large swath.
A good example of this is a clever commercial campaign from 23 and Me, the company that provides personalized ancestry reports based on people’s DNA. The short video segment of human genes personified may not exponentially increase the average person’s knowledge about genes, but it certainly provides an easier threshold to begin to better understand how genes work.
The importance of finding better ways to communicate scientific principles to a general audience, for instance, has led some researchers to suggest such training should be a component of any basic science program. A public that is better informed on the basics of science stand to make better decisions, so goes the logic. And those decisions have real-life applications, such as policies to tackle climate change, institute ethical standards for genetic research, and commit money to scientific studies. The same idea applies to many other fields.
So here are a few tips to keep the language clean – as in free of phrases and words that might muddy your message.
Steer clear of acronyms – On the whole, people don’t gab it up with acronyms. Journalists, too, are encouraged to avoid “alphabet” soup when it comes to government agencies, organizations, legislative acts, and phrases that have been reduced to a string of letters. Even if they roll easily off your tongue, it’s best to save them for texting. If you do use one, follow it up with the full name.
Imagine your audience – We call this the “12-Year-Old Nephew Rule,” named in honor of a news producer who once interviewed a jargon-spouting scientist. Faced with the bleak perspective that her interview had produced largely incomprehensible responses that were far from prime time, the light bulb went off. After the “official” interview ended, she thanked him and asked, “Could I ask you a favor? My 12-year-old nephew loves science. Would you mind doing a take I could show to him?” Guess what? Second take … no jargon. It’s the quote that made it on air. Most children and teens do not talk in highly technical terms, nor do most adults, for that matter. Run your messages by the young people in your life. If they can paraphrase them in their own words, you’ve successfully eliminated the jargon.
Be word wary – Words can have radically different meanings based on the discipline for which they are being employed. Just be aware of multiple meanings. Context should hopefully save the day on this one, but stud means one thing on a horse farm, another in a building, and still another in an ear. Culture can be used to describe shared values, the everyday diversions that entertain us, or a way to grow cells in a laboratory. Even something as simple as spin carries unexpected depth. In business, it can describe a company split. In politics, it describes efforts to frame a story in one’s self-interest. In physics, spin has an entirely different definition. And, to prove the point of this post, not something easily summed up without help from an expert. If you suspect a word you are using to describe specialized knowledge has a common definition that could lead to misunderstanding, then make a distinction. Or, find another word.
We move on to the final element. It’s another double bill – everyday examples. They not only make complex information less so, but they help your brain to create the path that will make your message easier to remember.
In trying to teach someone how to visualize or understand some object, idea, or kernel of knowledge they’ve never come across before (which often can occur when conveying specialized knowledge), it would be ludicrous to simply plunk it in their laps and assume they’ll figure it out. If you truly want your ideas to be seen, understood, and remembered, you must give your audience some help through everyday examples.
There are several ways to do that. We are going to give you some more tools to put into that message toolbox.
- Analogies – If you couldn’t show a photo or provide a drawing of what you want to convey, how would you help the audience visualize it? That’s the question Dean suggests will help to come up with an analogy. Analogies link something we know to something we don’t know. She suggests some phrases such as, “It looks like … moves like … appears as if … acts like,” to help with the visualization. The concrete and familiar are used to explain the abstract and unfamiliar. When you think about it, anything we don’t know is abstract. So, say you are a geologist trying to describe the Earth’s layers. Here’s an example:
“The Earth’s layers are basically like a parfait – a parfait made of rocks, minerals, tectonic plates, and a molten mass.”
This could be enough, but if the reporter wants more, or you have time to expand on your analogy, you could continue like this:
“You start with a cookie – the solid inner core, and move on to pudding to represent the liquid outer core. Next, you drop a gooey brownie to represent the largely solid but still viscous mantle. Finally, you end with some cake crumbs to represent the crust.”
- Metaphors – Metaphors are a figure of speech that make an indirect comparison between two things that are symbolically similar but literally different. In this example, an economist is trying to convey how a new economic policy is being received by the financial community. Given this reporter does not have the knowledge to accurately assess the significance on his own, he might write that the reaction is mixed, which is abstract, not interesting, and doesn’t fully convey feeling. The economist could help with a metaphor:
“For many economists, this policy is a presumptuous, brash, uninformed upstart who has not paid his dues.”
- Similes – Makes a comparison between two different things with the use of the words “as” or “like.” Say you are a doctor who is serving as a subject matter expert for a reporter writing a story about inner ear disorders, particularly ones that cause imbalance. The reporter asks you to describe what’s happening in the ear to cause the imbalance. Most of the readers or viewers have not gone to medical school, and likely have a limited knowledge of their anatomy. They need help. You could say:
“An ear with an inner ear disorder is like an air traffic controller with a monitor that keeps cutting out.”
From there, you could move on to more technical information, because you have already set up an entry point of knowledge.
As you look for everyday examples, keep in mind they may provide inspiration for one of your message supports – the sound bite, a short, snappy saying that doesn’t skimp on the message, but puts your words on a diet.
Pulling it All Together
Here’s one last tip: Sometimes, when you are working too long with an issue or concept, that initial kernel of an idea or theory can become lost in the details. Before your interview, ask yourself, “Why does this matter to my audience?” After you answer that question you ask yourself why again. And so on and so on, until you arrive at the answer that you think is stripped of abstraction, rooted in concrete and descriptive language, and gets to the core of why this all matters.
Here’s one last example: We present a way to use a story, statistic, and sound bite to convey lots of details, specialized knowledge, and research results in a simpler way.
For instance, you lead a city’s department of transportation and you have just announced an overhaul of your bus routes – with the intent of making shorter, faster runs. Utter the words “transit system” and it can be a rather abstract concept. Here’s a way to make this announcement more concrete:
Share a story – Convince actual commuters to share how their ride has become better or create a fictional commuter and build a story on all the new and improved elements that commuter will experience on the route.
Give meaning to your statistics – There will be many, many details you will inevitably want to share, including the findings of your studies and research. There may be time for that, but the first hook should be a statistic that makes this all personal. What do the changes mean? It means every rider, on average, will gain 10 minutes a day. That may not seem like much, but 10 more minutes spent as a family around the dinner table could be, as they say, priceless.
Offer a sound bite – It combines the entirety of the project with the small-scale impact on the customer. You might use:
“We went the distance, so our riders didn’t have to.”
The complexity of simplicity
We return to John Medina, who makes the point that simply cramming information into your brain though rote memorization doesn’t cut it. You can’t fake it till you make it because the brain doesn’t work that way.
The brain begins acquiring knowledge the minute the knowledge presents itself, and it does a better job of it if that information is given meaning. Medina says working toward comprehension is key, otherwise the brain may not begin to lay down that path you’ll need to travel to find that knowledge again. He notes:
“When you are trying to drive a piece of information into your brain’s memory systems, make sure you understand exactly what that information means. If you are trying to drive information into someone else’s brain, make sure they know what it means.”
The reward of all this work is a general public that has gained a better understanding of the work you do, as well as the knowledge you hope to share. That sounds like a message worth remembering.