Studies show that how we dress generally affects what people think of our personalities and capabilities. For example, women are more likely to be hired if they wear more masculine clothes to an interview (such as a dress suit). People who wear conservative clothes are seen as self-controlled and reliable, while those who wear more daring clothing are viewed as more attractive and individualistic.
It seemed to me that scientists are unlikely to be immune to these biases. So last week I posted an interview with image consultant Kasey Smith, who offered me her professional advice about what image consultants do and how to dress to improve my image. To my delight, this interview received more comments than any of my previous posts. I learned quite a bit about my colleagues from these comments, and picked up several more good tips about clothing and fashion in the scientific world that I’d like to share with you today.
Scientists Dress Up for Interviews and for Meetings With Non-Scientists
It’s probably no surprise that we like to dress up when we give talks and when we want to impress non-scientist decision makers. “I think it’s very important to be cognizant of these kinds of things, especially when we meet with VIPs such as Provosts and University Presidents and the like, not to mention potential donors to the college or university,” said one department chair. So apparently there’s a time and a place to kick it up a notch and add that third piece, as Kasey suggested—perhaps a scarf or a jacket.
But Know Your Audience, and Don’t Overdo It.
So as a scientist, it seems you’ll probably need at least one formal outfit. But be aware that when you’re dressing to impress, it’s possible to overdo it. In one email, a biophysicist told me, “I’m more likely to believe the science of somebody wearing a nice pair of khaki pants and a shirt than somebody wearing the whole ‘CEO costume’”. In another email, an astronomy professor reminisced about watching a job candidate botch his interviews by failing to observe the casual dress code at the institution where he was interviewing. “He gave his talk in a suit, which in any other environment, would be perfectly appropriate. However given the laid back nature of [our institution], it was really overkill and actually was distracting.”
Also, if you’re planning to buy a special outfit for job interviews, remember what another scientist told me. “Once you’ve bought your clothes, wear them a couple of times before your interview. Clothes just out of the rack are rather stiff, and (at least to some of us) it’s very obvious when somebody is wearing a suit that he just bought.”
Some Scientists Use Consistent Signature Outfits to Brand Themselves
Another trick of some successful senior scientists is to use clothing to help boost their personal brands. “I have taken to wearing white. It is a way for people to easily recognize me,” said an astronomer who is also a filmmaker. “Everything I own is grey, black, or a pattern with both,” said a physics professor. I also heard from scientists who consistently wore Western wear and scientists who were proud of their tattoos.
Certainly, cultivating a distinctive look can help you connect with the public. “When I meet a scientist with say…Bobak Ferdowsi’s hair, I think I probably pay more attention,” said a postdoc. Ferdowsi served as flight director on the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity mission. You may remember how his remarkable mohawk won him reams of media attention when the cameras spotted him during the rover’s landing on Mars.
But Postdocs, Beware: The Wrong Image Can Turn Off Your Mentors
Personal branding is always important, and choosing recognizable clothing can help you create your brand. But if you are at the stage of your career where you mainly need to impress senior scientists to get your next job offer, it may be safer to dress conservatively. That’s you, postdocs. One senior planetary scientist told me that she takes the outfits of her colleagues very seriously. “You can get away with looking like Einstein if you ARE Einstein, and otherwise, you just look like a loser.”
Sometimes this message gets passed along gently to postdocs and graduate students. “When I really wasn’t in the mood to think about appearance and showed up in jeans and hoody or all black, people came and asked me if everything was ok,” said one researcher about her postdoc experience. Another postdoc told me that he felt like he fit in better with senior scientists when he dressed more like one. “Dressing like an ‘adult’,” he said “made me feel like an adult who was ready to be a professional scientist.”
But sometimes the communication doesn’t go as as smoothly. The senior scientist above told me, “A female [foreign] postdoc I had working for me who came to work dressed like a teenager on vacation, and complained that people weren’t taking her seriously — when I said something to her about it, she got VERY angry with me.”
Yes, your appearance does count, but there’s plenty for room for fun.
Charles Day commented on my interview with Kasey in a Physics Today blog post called “Dress for physics success!” To me, this article seemed to sum up some common misconceptions about scientists and clothing. “We wear what we like when we like. What matters is our work, not our appearance.”
The many comments I received on my interview with Kasey send a very different message: our appearances sometimes do matter to our scientific colleagues, even when it’s a reverse kind of bias, like a negative reaction to business suits.
But the good thing is that being a scientist—a senior one at least—comes with tremendous freedom to decide what image we would like to project. Dressing more formally may win us points in administrative and political circles. Wearing more daring clothing can help you make a strong impression with the public. Thankfully, there’s more than one way to do it right.
As one scientist from the Netherlands told me, “I think the biggest difference is made if your outfit shows that you take care of your clothes and yourself.” That sounds like good marketing advice. Thanks to everyone for the feedback!
P.S. For more thoughts about how women scientists should dress, you might enjoy this article about a double standard for men and women in science.
(This article originally appeared in Nature)
I went to a scientific talk the other day that seemed to leave half the audience inspired and the other half frustrated. My frustrated colleagues insisted that the speaker did not present any true “results”. However, he did make some fascinating predictions about what would be discovered ten or twenty years from now, predictions that may be crucial for marketing exercises and expensive experiments.
Was this a good talk or a bad talk? Science or marketing?
Maybe just it’s a matter of taste. Some of us will never be satisfied by a talk unless we see a hypothesis confidently confirmed or discarded. Others may find the realm of topics subject to such clear decisions too limiting and yearn for a glimpse into the more distant future.
Still, we often argue over the quality of our colleagues’ presentations. When it is hiring time, for example, and faculty candidates are parading through your department, no doubt a common topic of conversation is who gave the best talk. And the maturity level of the research is often a contentious point.
With these conversations in mind, I’d like to suggest a numerical scale we can use to describe scientific talks. This scale is not meant to weigh the overall quality of a talk, only to resolve some of the tension between those who prefer solid conclusions and those who enjoy more nebulous forecasting. The first steps are about development of an idea by an individual scientist or research group; the last steps are about the acceptance of the idea by the community.
Science Maturity Level (SML)
1. This talk presents a path that might one day lead to a testable new hypothesis or new data. An SML1 talk does not even strive to present scientific conclusions. Nonetheless, it can surprise and delight by illuminating a new research avenue that has become within arm’s reach, and it can shape the future of the field by its creativity and prescience.
2. The speaker presents a testable hypothesis with no constraining data or data whose interpretation is beyond the reach of state-of-the-art theoretical calculations. Such a talk can be boring, or it can be trendsetting, pointing the community to a fruitful direction for new work.
3. An SML 3 talk applies the full scientific method to the problem at hand, in whatever form the method is customarily used in the field. It compares a hypothesis to a data set and derives an unambiguous interpretation. However, so far the conclusion has garnered only limited attention from the scientific community, perhaps because it mainly confirms or reproduces previous work—or perhaps because it is new and thrilling.
4. This talk compares a hypothesis to a data set and appears to derive an unambiguous interpretation. Crucially, other researchers have confirmed or disputed this result in their talks and publications.
5. The speaker describes data and calculations that the community recognizes as part of its culture and history. Perhaps it describes the roots of a research paradigm that continues to spawn textbooks and doctoral theses. Perhaps it is about an old paradigm that has since been superseded. Attending such a talk can provide new insights, or it could be more about the pleasure of simply meeting a scientific celebrity.
It’s tempting to say that talks in the 1-2 range are more about marketing than about science, but I’m not sure that’s the case. It seems to me that science is the process of moving from 1 to 5—and that this progress emerges from the community as a whole, not from any one scientist. So you can’t really describe a single talk as more “scientific” than another.
Also, it seems to me that talks at all points on the scale can be engaging and full of useful information, or dull and tiresome. The “marketing” is ultimately about whether the talk meets the needs of the audience—whether the needs are for information about the natural world, or for inspiration about future projects. So a talk on any research at any stage can be good marketing or bad marketing.
Curiously, I’ve found that different kinds of scientific institutions seem to prefer different kinds of talks. Perhaps academic departments tend to prefer talks with higher SMLs, while government labs tend to prefer lower SMLs. Maybe that’s because government labs often focus on big projects that require lots of planning. That seems to be something to keep in mind when you are applying for jobs.
Ultimately I think there is a place for all kinds of talks in our scientific universe. Perhaps the 4s and 5s belong at the beginning of a conference session, while the 1s, and 2s belong at the end. Talks about String Theory are often 1s. Review talks are often 4s or 5s.
What do you think? Should your department focus on 1s and 2s, or 4s and 5s? Or should it aim to hire scientists who operate at both ends of the spectrum. What is the SML of your scientific talks?
How is a scientist supposed to dress? I posed this question in an interview with professional image consultant Kasey Smith. My last post contained the first half of our interview, where Kasey introduced herself and explained what image consultants are, and why scientists need them. Here, in the second half of the interview, are some of Kasey’s specific fashion tips. Take these to heart and you’ll kill ‘em at the next AAAS meeting–or at your next faculty interview.
KS: It wasn’t even your jacket, right? It was your brother’s jacket. It was the wrong color for you as well. You looked frumpier than you should. Because when you were in that gray jacket, that dark, dark gray jacket, you looked stunning. You just look taller and thinner and younger and more professional when you’re in the right color and the right style and the right fit.
MK: Well thanks, Kasey. This may seem like a basic question to you, but we scientists are so clueless in this regard. How do you make sure that your clothes fit?
KS: First of all, the shoulders. Your jacket’s shoulders, your seams on your shoulders are falling off the edges of the tops of your arms I believe. I think there was a lot of extra fabric in the arms. We don’t want that tight, but we don’t want it so loose. We want to see some definition between your side and the arm. If there’s so much fabric around your arms, it just makes it look more bulky. That would be one thing.
The length of your pants are another, you want them to break right there on your shoe and not be too short. Not too long, but not too short. If things are too baggy, then you just look bulkier. It needs to look good and it needs to feel good.
You could take your clothes to a tailor shop, or when you buy new clothes have them tailored to fit you. Men know this already. Men’s clothes come with the hems not even in there. They know that they have to mark the hems. Women just think that clothes should fit them off the rack, but that’s not true either. Just like men have to do these alterations, so do women.
MK: Doesn’t it cost a lot of money to have custom tailored clothes?
KS: Not really. I think that Nordstrom’s does it for free if you buy their clothes from them. It’s surprising. It does not cost a lot extra.
MK: How should we choose the color of our clothes?
KS: One of the things that I do is professional color analysis. However, it’s all based on the three dimensions of color. The first dimension is the name of the color, if it’s red or blue or green or purple. The next one is the intensity of the color. Is that blue a warm blue? Is it a dark blue? A warm blue? A sky blue? That’s the intensity of the color, from the brightest that it could possibly be to the dullest that it could possibly be. That’s the second dimension. The third dimension is the value which is the lightness to the darkness. It’s on a scale of one to 10 where white being one and black being 10.
MK: So how can we pick colors that are right for us?
KS: That’s based on your skin type–if you’re cool toned or you’re warm toned. Cool means that you have cool undertones to your skin like a pink blue undertone. Warm would be more yellow golden. Then there’s neutral. There’s people that are neutral that don’t fit into warm or cool.
The next thing I would look at is eye color. If your eyes are blue, then you look fabulous in blue. If your eyes are brown, you probably really look good in the right tone of brown.
If your eyes are green, you’re going to look good in green. Also, your hair color. If your hair’s brown, you’re probably going to look good in brown. If it’s red, you could use some red tones in your clothing. There’s a lot of factors to determine what the best colors are.
MK: Now, a lot of scientists where I work tend to wear the same khaki pants over and over and polo shirts. When we give talks, we wear the same khaki pants but we put on a jacket. We know we’re supposed to wear a jacket when we dress up, but that’s about it. If you put on a tie, sometimes you feel out of place in the scientific lab.
MK: Sometimes people work in jeans and t-shirts. I might go into work in the summer wearing shorts and flip flops.
I see you don’t approve. How do you suggest we improve things?
KS: I would wear the best looking khaki pants that fit me the best. I would pick polo shirts that are the right colors for me. I would not wear shorts and flip flops. You can look really casual, but look neat and presentable and put together. You trim what needs to be trimmed. You shower and shave or whatever you do. Wear casual clothes, but make them look the best that you can and that fit you well.
You could also start up scaling incrementally. Maybe instead of those khaki pants you add a pair of dark pants, a little nicer quality pair of pants, or a dress shirt instead of that polo shirt.
The tie and the jacket is the professional look, but if you take that tie off that just downgrades it a little bit. The jacket is considered the third piece and when you add a third piece, that adds professionalism to your wardrobe. That’s why I said you can wear jeans and a stylish t?shirt and wear that jacket over it and you’re going to look fantastic and more upscale than without it.
MK: In general, what do you mean by third piece?
KS: The piece that goes over your top and pants. That’s the piece that adds the extra business professional look to your outfit. A third piece could be your jacket. A doctor’s lab coat could be his third piece. It depends on what industry you’re in.
MK: OK. So I could try adding a third piece.
KS: For a woman, it could be a sweater over a tank top. It could be a jacket. It could be several things. For men, it could be a jacket or a sweater. It could be a lab coat. It could be a lot of things.
MK: Does being fashionable necessarily mean that you have to spend a lot of money?
KS: No, no. Being educated in what looks good on you and the style that you need to look for in stores. You can shop sales. You can shop online. There’s a lot of ways to build a wardrobe. It doesn’t have to be designer labels and designer price tags and even it was designer labels, you can still find them on sale. An example would be Off Fifth. They have major sales. Nieman [Marcus]‘s has major sales. Macy’s and Nordstrom seems to be really good places for men to buy clothing because they have a lot of price points and they have a lot of good quality stuff for very good prices.
Make sure your clothes fit, that the colors of your clothing complement your skin, hair and eye color, and try adding a third piece. This has got to be easier than quantum mechanics; I’m going to give it a shot. See you on the runway, colleagues!
An image consultant for scientists? I only recently got into the habit of tying my shoes and combing my hair in the morning. But some scientists clearly do know how to look sharp—especially when they are giving talks, running meetings, and so on. And from a marketing perspective, the way you look becomes part of your personal brand, which bears on whether people seek to hire you, collaborate with you and so on. So I asked image consultant Kasey Smith for some basic advice about how scientists can present themselves better.
I met Kasey at a meeting of the National Speakers Association. She took one look at me and told me (gently) that my sport jacket was too big. So I knew she would be the right person to ask for advice. Her consultancy is called ArtistryofImage.com
MK: What is an image consultant?
KS: An image consultant works with people to help them create a wardrobe that works for them rather than against them. Everything mixes and matches built on the anchor of one or two sports coats and several different pants and shirts and accessories. It just saves time and money and you don’t have to think about what you want to wear, you just grab things and they’re going to look beautiful together. Then, you can focus on the things that are important, which is your work and the people that you work with and their needs.
MK: Do you work with people on all aspects of image?
KS: Yes. I focus mostly on the appearance piece, which is color, style, fit to create the wardrobe that works best for the client, the individual. I also have a lot of information on behavior and communication skills. Behavior would be like the proper way to shake hands, the different cultural etiquette. Then the communication would be non?verbal as well as verbal communication.
MK: Fantastic. How does one get to be an image consultant?
KS: By many different routes. We have image consultants all over the world and they all have their specialty and their expertise. I happen to have a background in fashion merchandising and a degree in apparel design and pattern drafting. I’ve always been interested in clothing. I came into image consulting to add that extra piece to my education level, so that I could do one?on?one consults. Other image consultants specialize in the etiquette piece, the behavior piece, speaking about the four generations of the marketplace, couture designing, making clothes for clients.
MK: You were telling me about these various professional organizations that image consultants belong to, and degrees of certification and things like that. Could you explain that to me?
KS: Yes, I belong to the Association of Image Consultants International. We have three levels of certification. The first one is called FLC [First Level Certification]. The second one is CIP, which stands for Certified Image Professional. You have to be an image consultant for at least five years to get that. The next one is Certified Image Master. That, there’s only seven or eight of those in the world, because you’ve been in it so long you’re a master at it. There’s lots of criteria that you have to pass to get to that level, and image consultants are working towards all those levels all the time.
We also have to maintain our level. We have to get CEs [Continuing Education credits], so many CEs every year to maintain our status.
MK: What would you say is the image of scientists in general?
KS: In general, everybody has their reputation. I would think that scientists are so in their head that they don’t really care about their image. I think, as a general rule, they might come off a little frumpy or techie, or nerdy, or whatever.
I think that could change. I think that when people consider their branding of how they look, and they have a consistency with that, their self?image and their self?confidence rises. They are seen as more successful, more effective, more responsible.
The attention is taken away from their appearance and then it’s on what’s important, the present moment, whatever that entails. It’s all about being present. When you don’t feel comfortable your attention is on the uncomfortableness that you feel, rather than being in the moment.
MK: Interesting. You’re saying that part of image is taking people’s minds off of your image?
KS: Right, because just like the cell phone ringing in the meeting, people’s appearance sometimes can be very distracting. If you’re trying to get a message across and all people in your audience can think about is, “Well, that outfit doesn’t look good” or whatever the judgment is. We all judge because it’s hardwired into us to judge. It’s the bite, the fight or flight mentality. In our subconscious mind, it’s the friend or foe. Or which one are you, can I trust you, should I not trust you? Those are all immediate, intuitive, under the radar judgments that we don’t even realize we’re making, but we are making them.
When things are off, people can tell. They don’t know that they can tell, but they can tell.
Tune in next time for part 2 of the interview to hear Kasey’s specific tips for us scientists about clothing color, style and fit. I can’t believe I’m actually writing about this!
Season Six of AMC’s Mad Men will premier this spring on April 7 and scientists around the world will smirk again.
If you aren’t one of the millions of viewers eagerly awaiting the premier, let me give you a quick synopsis of the series. Mad Men follows the escapades of Madison Avenue advertising executives, as they lie and cheat their way to success, while looking enviably dazzling and dapper. It’s a commentary on the shallowness of American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s—and on the dark side of marketing. It’s the very opposite of what science, our quest for truth and deeper understanding of the universe, is supposed to be about–something to smirk at indeed.
But smirk or not, I love this show! When I watch Mad Men, I’m reminded how much the world has changed since the 1960s. We don’t wear so many fedoras. We don’t tolerate littering or smoking in public spaces. And the practice of marketing has changed—swung around almost completely, so that it is nearly aligned with the ethics of science.
In the era of Mad Men, the most powerful marketing medium was television commercials. Television commercials are one-way communication. Companies hid behind the wall of the television screen, blasting out messages, but seldom listening to their customers. Customers were unhappy, and the word marketing became almost synonymous with lying about your product to turn a profit.
But nowadays, thanks to the internet, if we think a company is lying or making a shoddy product, we don’t sit still and take it. We trash them on Twitter. We give them a zero-star rating on Yelp. We post videos like Dave Carroll’s “United Breaks Guitars” YouTube video that garnered 12 million plus views: a homemade negative commercial. In ways that continue to shock the business world, marketing has become two-way communication.
In response, the practice of marketing has changed. Today, we teach marketing students that “markets are conversations”. Companies like Starbucks and Whole Foods have embraced the idea that building communities, not tearing them down, is what helps a business grow. Companies like IBM and Toyota have come to value transparency, honesty and customer engagement as a way to build consumer confidence. Some companies, like Google, Facebook, and Chipotle even rely on co-creating their products with their customers. If you posted a photo on Facebook or designed your own burrito at Chipotle, well, that company’s product is partly made by you.
To be sure, there’s still a big role for “traditional marketing” tools like billboards and TV and radio commercials. The whole world hasn’t yet caught up to the internet era business values of honesty, community and engagement. Not everyone reads news on a Wii or “pins” from a smartphone. There will always be companies who ignore their customers at their peril, just like there will always be scientists who hurt their own reputations through thoughtless self-promotion.
But there’s a whole lot less about marketing for scientists to smirk at these days—and a lot we can learn from the business world about how to communicate science and advocate for science. I like to say that science and marketing go hand in hand: every paper you write, every talk you give, every grant proposal you submit is a kind of marketing pitch for your intellectual contributions. We scientists might as well benefit from the latest advances in marketing and learn how to do it right—for the benefit or our careers, and for the benefit of the world.
I’m proud to now be working with the SciLogs science blogging network! I hope you’ll stay tuned in—next week, I’ll be interviewing professional image consultant Kasey Smith to get her tips on how scientists can dress to rock a TED talk. And please also check out other new SciLogs.com bloggers Alex Brown at Do you speak science? and Malcolm Cambpell who is joining The Aggregator as co-blogger.
(This article was originally published in Nature.)
I imagine you’re cuddled up with your loved ones, recounting your favorite moments of the year. To amplify your joy, let me share with you this list of my six top science marketing successes of 2012, compiled with help from the Marketing for Scientists Facebook group.
It was a good year for “geeks” with celebrities like pop singer Bjork’s sticking up for science, the continued success of television’s Big Bang Theory, and rappers, hipsters and pop stars around the world sporting dark plastic glasses. But these events below combined marketing techniques with the substance of science, educating us even as they drew us in. Click here to compare them with last year’s top five list.
#6 The Vancouver Science Museum’s Gross-Out Ad Campaign
A tiger litter box labeled “Rajah” filled with large pieces of faux cat scat sits in the middle of a busy sidewalk. The sign says “Tigers Will Use a Litter Box” and “SCIENCE WORLD: We can explain.” This installation, and several other attention-grabbing, conversation-starting displays around the Vancouver metro area helped lure visitors to the museum this year, and impressed me with its marketing magic a la business guru Seth Godin’s Purple Cow.
#5 The Flame Challenge
This contest, held by the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University with help from actor Alan Alda, dared scientists and educators to submit videos explaining what a flame is—a subtle concept. What set this contest apart from other science communication contests is that the judges were 11-year old students: some 6000 of them at 130 elementary schools. The results taught us something deep, I think, about how children view scientists.
This organization, launched by writer Shawn Otto, issued a call for “presidential and congressional debates on science and technology” this year supported by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences, and over 150 universities. It compiled a series of fourteen questions on topics like climate change, vaccination, and science education and submitted them to the Obama and Romney campaigns. Once again, the campaigns dodged the invitation to debate in person. But they submitted answers to the questions, just as Obama and McCain did in 2008. Science Debate 2012 showed that politicians had better care about science—and that scientists are not shy about politics.
It can be tricky to measure the impact of marketing on social media, but with over 2.2 million likes, this Facebook group with its the iconoclastic name has certainly moved the needle. Surf on over for a mix of techie humor, scientist hero worship, and gee whiz science news, all served with a heap of snarky attitude. It’s science, just how the web generation likes it, and a tour de force of relationship building via social networks. (Suggested by Laurel Norris).
#2 The Mysterious Higgs Boson
It’s really hard to explain what the heck this thing is, as evidenced by this video of Brooklyn NY hipsters’ trying to describe it. Even science writers struggled to pin down Leon Lederman’s “God Particle”. Does it cause us to have mass? Sort of. Nonetheless, this landmark discovery, buoyed by the sheer enthusiasm of the world’s particle physicists, will be remembered in pop culture from Dilbert to the Big Bang Theory to TIME magazine’s “Particle of the Year”. That’s a sales achievement, not just a scientific one. (Suggested by Steve Kilston.)
#1 The NASA Mohawk Guy
Mission controller Bobak Ferdowsi became an instant celebrity this year when NASA’s Curiosity probe landed on Mars and the television cameras landed on Ferdowsi’s remarkable hairdo, streaked with red dye. Bobak’s hairdo helped rebrand science and NASA, contrasting starkly with the stodgy look of engineers seen in classic NASA footage. Curiosity’s success lifted our spirits during a year of economic hardship, and Bobak’s sense of style filled the internet with chatter about how science is becoming cool once again. (Suggested by everybody.)
Wishing you a 2013 full of big discoveries—and people who care about them!
(This article was originally published in Nature.)
Elizabeth Bass’s job title doesn’t sound odd; she is the director of the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. But what she does may strike you as challenging to say the least. Founded in 2009 at the urging of Alan Alda, the Center for Communicating Science helps scientists become better communicators using, among other things, exercises in improvisational acting.
I’ve been fascinated by the notion of combining science communication and acting ever since Nobel Laureate John Mather told me how he thought studying acting had helped him succeed as a physicist. So I jumped at the chance to interview Liz when I was visiting Stony Brook last fall. I also wrote briefly about the Center for Communicating Science this summer, in an article about a contest they sponsored called the Flame Challenge.
Before taking on leadership of the Center for Communicating Science, Liz worked for 20 years as a journalist at Newsday, where she served as deputy national editor, deputy foreign editor, and health and science editor. She has also co-authored two books, Bioterrorism: A Guide for Hospital Preparedness, and KidsHealth Guide for Parents: Pregnancy to Age 5.
I had lots of questions for Liz, and our interview turned into a long conversation. Here is an excerpt that I found surprising—about the essence of improvisational acting, and why acting exercises can be a challenge for scientists.
Marc: Liz, tell me about the concept of teaching improvisational acting to scientists.
Liz: That really came from Alan Alda, and it was based on his personal experience. He said that the only acting training he ever had was improvisation, and he felt it really transformed him as an actor and to some extent as a person. Of course, he had a lot of it.
We use a series of exercises that are based on the work of someone named Viola Spolin, who was a theater educator in the 40s and 50s in Chicago out of a school that then led to Second City. She did a lot of work not just with actors but also with teachers and school children, applying these exercises in different ways.
The basic idea of it is that it’s really an exercise in paying attention to the other person. A lot of it is about paying attention and trying to imagine what the other person is thinking. Focus on the other person, rather than on what you’re saying.
Marc: Paying attention?
Liz: Just to give you an example, some of the exercises are very simple and are almost purely like paying attention exercises. For instance, say you and I are doing one of these. You just start talking about anything. You’re talking about movies you saw—anything—and I just have to repeat your words as close to simultaneously as I can.
So basically, I’m looking at your mouth. I’m trying to imagine if you use a phrase, what the next word would be.
People get really good at this. It sounds almost like stereo. People can get so close, but it’s really mostly “Now I’m really paying attention to you in a different way.”
Or there’s very simple things like these mirror exercises. Again, two people are facing each other. One person is moving, and the other person has to mirror their gestures. Then, the leader changes.
You can even tell people to close their eyes and see how closely they can mirror each other. You might say, “How can you mirror someone with your eyes closed?” It’s because you’ve been paying so much attention to them that you can imagine what they’re going to do next. Sometimes it’s amazing how close people are.
Marc: So the acting skills you’re teaching are all about listening and paying attention. That’s funny because you’d think scientists are all about observing nature. We should be good at paying attention! But, maybe we’re not. Maybe we’re not good at paying attention to people.
Liz: That’s interesting. You would think you’d be. A certain kind of paying attention you’d think scientists would be very good at.
Obviously, there’s certain kinds of people that are particularly good at paying attention, like you would think an elementary school teacher might be really good. Nurses tend to be really good at this often, if they’re good nurses. This is what they do day in and day out: listen to people and try to make judgments about “how sick is this person really” from the way they’re talking.
I don’t know that scientists are necessarily worse [than average]. I do think from my experience, that especially with a lot of young scientists, they are schooled that they’re not supposed to be personal. They’re not supposed to bring much of themselves to the way they communicate.
Liz: I remember one student who—he was very good at our science communication classes—and he came back after a while and said how he had some presentation coming up and he had run through it as a trial run for his mentor. It was very good, but he was told he really needed to be drier. So, it was like he was applying too much of our stuff.
Marc: Isn’t there a contradiction between improvising, which is making things up on the spot, and sending a message that you’ve already distilled?
Liz: Well, improvising isn’t really making things up. You wouldn’t just make up something that wasn’t true. It’s really responding. The way we do it, it’s really responding to the other person and trying to pay attention to what they need and what they’re understanding. That can be very useful in an interview situation, because you’re more attuned to the person you’re talking to. You may perceive without them even saying anything when they’re not understanding you or when they may be misinterpreting what you say. Then, you can correct that or deal with it right on the spot.
It is a balance depending on the situation. For instance, if you were in an interview that was extremely sensitive, dealing with really controversial and sensitive material obviously, you might want to be more scripted, frankly. Scientists tend to think that the press is a lot more hostile than it is, and every interview is a disaster waiting to happen, and they’re going to be tripped up and tricked and that kind of thing. The vast majority of media interviews are not at all like that. They’re really friendly.
(This article was first published in Scientific American.)
This week, presidential candidate Mitt Romney got into hot water after made some remarks at a fundraiser attended by the wealthy that seemed to denigrate middle-class and poor Americans. Similarly, last week, Bill Nye released a frank video denouncing creationism that sent some religious viewers into a tizzy and prompted the Creation Museum to release their own video countering his message. Both of these public figures seemed to be addressing their base of supporters—not recognizing that everyone else could be watching.
I had a rousing discussion here in the blogosphere about these events, involving science bloggers Greg Laden and Justin Starr. Starr posed a question that got me thinking. In a world where nothing is off the record, and anything we do or say can suddenly appear on YouTube, what can we do to energize our base of supporters? How can we avoid making the same mistakes as Romney and Nye? It seems to me that we scientists have three winning options here, all borrowed from politics.
The first option for energizing science fans—and for crafting all our messages—is to stay positive. When politicians talk about “hope” and “change” and making a better life for the American people and so on, that’s what they are doing. It may sometimes feel generic, but it’s hard to criticize. Much of science communication works perfectly well in this mode—there’s typically nothing contentious about discovering a new kind of galaxy or learning how whale sharks migrate.
The second option is to craft a negative message doing your best to forecast the responses you’ll get from your opponents and tailoring your message to anticipate those responses. Taking this approach often means ratcheting up the emotional appeal. For example, in an effort to counter widespread childhood obesity and diabetes, the United States Department of Agriculture released new standards limiting the number of calories in a school lunch. Shortly thereafter, Representatives Steve King and Tim Huelskamp introduced a bill that would remove these limits, called the “no hungry kids” act. The name of this act, with its emotional appeal, illustrates this approach.
I argued that scientists could address rampant creationism with a video campaign modeled on the ad campaigns crafted by the anti-smoking lobby. I showed some example videos about the dangers of smoking that use music and child actors to speak to the heart of the viewer. This approach also exemplifies the second option; is hard to combat such an emotional appeal with any sort of logical argument.
A third option is to try to speak to multiple groups at once. Pundits commented that when Mitt Romney spoke of “life” “marriage” and “religious liberty” in Tampa this month, he subtly referenced the slogan of a conservative political group called the family research council. Romney placed each of the above terms at the end of successive sentences to make the reference less overt, yet still allow those involved in this political group to hear them. In politics, this technique is called a “dog whistle,” referring to a high-pitched sound audible to dogs but not to humans.
Scientists giving a colloquium sometimes use a similar technique. When you give a scientific colloquium, you general face a diverse audience: a mix of experts and non-experts. To keep the experts entertained while introducing your material in such a way that the non-experts can understand it, we sometimes use what are called “depth spikes”. A depth spike is a kind of side comment made using the jargon of the field. E.g. “For those of you who work on photochemistry, this trend is equivalent to the Stark-Einstein law.”
It may seem restrictive to be forced into these three modes of communicating. Perhaps scientists should always be candid and unfettered by political concerns. Or perhaps the free flow of information that underlies this trend could ultimately serve science. Science is about uncovering the truth, and open communication helps the truth come out faster.
Either way, I’m pretty sure there is no turning back; in the age of the Internet, what seems like it should be private often isn’t, and we must adapt. When scientists enter the public arena, we must remember the Romney gaff, the Climategate scandal and the reaction to Bill Nye’s video. We are all politicians now.
Last week, I was lucky to have the opportunity to pick the brain of communications expert Partick Donadio. Instead of having an abstract conversation on the topic of communicating science. I decided to ask him about a concrete example: Bill Nye’s recent video called “Bill Nye: Creationism is Not Appropriate for Children”. Patrick provided for us a thoughtful dissection of Nye’s speech. In a later interview, Bill Nye used some of the techniques Donadio described, as Patrick and I were gratified to see.
In writing the article about Nye and Donadio, I plunged into a engrossing debate about how we scientists should respond to the creationist movement. Through blogs and comments on Google+, I heard from evolution advocates enamoured with Donadio’s approach: trying to understand those who are on the fence about the issue to better pull them to our side through empathy, storytelling, and conversation. I also heard from scientific thinkers ready to draw a line in the sand, as Nye did in his video, and engage creationists in verbal battle.
I’d like to take a moment and respond to some of the comments I heard, and throw out a challenge to the more eager evolution advocates. I believe that if you intend to mount an effective campaign against vocal creationists, the only option is modern marketing. If you support a direct verbal attack on the ideals of the young-Earth movement, as Kyle Hill clearly does, I would like to challenge you to film an anti-creationist video with the marketing punch of the top anti-smoking videos, like this one, above.
Marketing. Because in Today’s World, the Content Dictates The Audience
There was a discussion and disagreement about who the intended audience of Nye’s video was. Greg Laden suggested that it was intended to convince the “casual creationist”. Others, like Justin Starr, suggested that the video was intended to rally the base of evolution advocates, and thereby help shift the political center of the debate, the “Overton Window”. A debate blossomed over which end of the belief spectrum was most important to address, and about how hard a line we must draw.
One premise of the debate seemed to be that one could effectively make one video (Nye style) to energize the base of fervent evolution advocates, and perhaps a different video (Donadio style) to recruit new evolution advocates by coaxing the undecided. As Justin Starr put it, “If the video was heard by the intended listener, he/she would not be offended.”
However, I must insist that this is not how communication works in the age of the internet. Routing a video to a particular audience simply by deciding how accommodating your stance will be is not possible. As Laden acknowledged, placing a video on YouTube, as Nye did, makes it viewable to everyone: the base, the creationists, and everyone in between. Indeed, even if Nye hadn’t placed the video on YouTube himself, someone else would likely have done it for him—and it would still have ended up on CNN for all the world to see.
Instead, in today’s internet-driven world, the content itself dictates the audience. It’s not about whom you send a video to; it’s about who feels compelled to watch. If the video isn’t intriguing and exciting to the viewer in the first few seconds, the viewer just surfs away, and argument doesn’t get heard, whether it is an accommodating plea or a blunt diatribe.
So instead of focusing on how accommodating or adamant we need to be, I would like us science communicators to try our hands at devising a heart-stopping marketing campaign for the theory of evolution. Let me explain what I mean.
Science Marketing Lessons from the Anti-Smoking Lobby
Marketing is the craft of understanding and meeting the needs and wants of your audience—like the desire of YouTube watchers to be moved or entertained. Donadio’s communication tools are part of the marketing toolkit; so is “framing” of science. A good marketing campaign, like a political campaign, ensures that your intended audience receives your message and anticipates that your opponents will also receive your message.
We need good marketing to confront savvy creationists like the folks at the Creation Museum. Maybe Bill Nye is not a businessman, as Kyle Hill proposed. But I would venture that Creation Museum CEO Ken Ham is. So to better compete for space in people’s minds, I believe we scientists should no longer eschew the use of business concepts like marketing to further our causes.
There is a growing number of videos about science that demonstrate successful marketing: they draw in their audience using music, irony, animations, rhymes, humor, sex, real life stories. Then they infect viewers with scientific knowledge. Marine biologist-turned filmmaker Randy Olsen has written at length about this kind of videomaking: appealing to the heart, the gut, and the groin. One of my favorite examples of science marketing is the Large Hadron Collider rap video; it’s so catchy, I still find myself singing it in the shower.
Some science marketing videos even draw a line hard enough to satisfy the most vigorous anti-creationist. Some science marketing videos shock and terrify their audience, or aggressively paint opponents as liars. I’m talking about the best videos by anti-smoking lobby: videos that present the medical science of smoking hazards in an unforgettable way, while gluing your eyes to the screen.
Take a look at the stirring anti-smoking video from Thailand (above) that aims right at the heart. It’s analogous to Nye’s video in a way: it’s about teaching smoking to your children. But unlike Nye’s video, it lets the children themselves do the talking, with moving results. Can we summon this kind of emotional impact in a video about evolution?
Or if you’re eager to go negative and you have a taste for ironic humor, you might prefer to use this anti-smoking video (below) as a model. It features dancing big tobacco execs and bloody surgical scenes set to carnival music. This video targets the teen audience in particular, capitalizing on their distaste for insincerity. Teens are often undecided about their religious beliefs, so they are also an important audience for videos marketing the theory of evolution.
Granted, the creationism issue is trickier in many ways than the smoking issue; it’s more abstract, and it involves the touchy subject of religion. But if you feel strongly about battling the intellectual threat of unfettered Biblical literalism, I dare you to make your own creative, unforgettable anti-creationist video that lives up to the anti-smoking lobby efforts, and post it on YouTube.
I have one last comment today on the topic of marketing, creationism and cigarettes. All successful anti-smoking advertisements are created using a basic marketing principle: people don’t change their minds just because you tell them to change. To quote thetruth.com: “Tell someone not to do something and they will. Don’t read the next sentence. See what we mean? We’re not here to tell people not to smoke, because, well, it doesn’t work.”
For me, that was the essence of Patrick Donadio’s message for us scientists on the matter of creationism. Don’t tell people not to smoke, because it doesn’t work. But with some marketing savvy, you can fight Big Creationism and win.
(This article was first published in Scientific American)
Have you seen the new video by Bill Nye called “Creationism is not appropriate for children”? The video simply shows Nye standing in front of a white background and speaking, for two minutes, thirty seconds. Yet almost three million people watched it on YouTube, and many discussed it on YouTube and Facebook. Some folks are cheering on Bill Nye for his sharp dismissal of the creationist viewpoint in favor of modern science. Others find fault with his take on the issue, disagreeing, or accusing him of talking down to his audience.
When I watched the video myself, I cringed. I was pretty sure that the video would do nothing for those who don’t believe in evolution but turn them away. However, I suspected that as an astrophysicist, my views on the subject could be somewhat limited. So I showed the video to business communication specialist Patrick Donadio to get his take on it and learn what I could about how we who support the teaching of evolution can be more effective communicators.
Patrick Donadio, MBA, is a professional speaker and a communications coach to the leaders of Fortune 500 companies. He has received his Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) designation from the National Speakers Association (NSA), a designation earned by less than 8% of NSA’s worldwide members. His book, Communicating with IMPACT, will be coming out next summer. One of Patrick’s specialties is helping people adapt their styles of communication to match their audiences.
MK: Patrick, can you sum up what you do in a sentence or two?
PD: Since 1986, I have been teaching and coaching leaders and their organizations to improve their presentation and verbal communication skills, enhance their credibility, deepen relationships, and boost performance and profits.
MK: Woah! That was a mouthful. OK, let’s start with some of the things Bill Nye clearly did well in his video.
PD: First of all, it is obvious he knows how to work the camera. You can tell he’s been on TV before, because he makes good eye contact. He talks to the listener by talking to the camera. He uses voice inflection and overall he appears professional. Also in his content he uses an example, a quote and even a question, all good ways to engage the audience. These are some of the areas he is doing well. I would say that in the first twenty seconds he did a nice job of pulling me in.
MK: Now, how would you improve this video, or make a better one?
PD: I would be careful of the language you choose. He said, “…your world view just becomes crazy…” Even though he didn’t call me crazy or call you crazy, people may start to think, “What, are you saying I’m crazy because I don’t believe in evolution?” So I would say, be careful of the language you use, especially if it might insult the listener.
But more importantly, think about the tone. He is trying to convince the viewer with what I call a “push” message. I would encourage him to shift it to more of a “pull” message.
MK: Pull instead of push. What does that mean?
PD: Instead of pushing people towards the sides [of the issue], I would try to pull them into the conversation. I might ask some rhetorical questions to get them to think about why they feel the way they do. Instead Bill is pushing out information, for example “if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it.”
He could say, “Scientific recent research shows us that we have evolved. I encourage you to explore this concept deeper. When you’re talking with your kids, I encourage you to allow them to discuss the issue with you and have a healthy dialogue.”
It is my belief that you can’t change someone’s opinion by trying to force—push—them to change. You can change their view by inviting—pulling—them to change. Winston Churchill once said. “I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like to be taught.”
MK: That makes sense.
PD: He says in the video what happens when you don’t believe in evolution. “Your world becomes complicated when you don’t believe in evolution”. But when you’re trying to convince somebody, it’s might be more helpful to say what happens when you do believe.
He might have said, “I want to encourage you to explore the concept that there is some truth to the idea of evolution. I don’t necessarily want to convince you today that you have to stop believing in creationism, rather to invite you today to be open the idea that evolution does exist. I don’t want to change you today; I want to challenge you to explore this concept a little deeper.” That’s a pull, verses a push.
MK: I like that: “I don’t want to change you, I want to challenge you”.
PD: Also some of his premises are faulty. Like his suggestion that you can’t be an engineer if you are a creationist. Well, I’m not sure that’s true. Many of his points are not really going to help convince me if I’m on the other side, because I’m finding a lot of holes in his examples. So who is his real audience? What is his intent for this video? These are two important questions to answer as your craft your message.
Let’s say there’s a continuum of beliefs around this issue. There are those people in the middle that you might be able to attract and of course, you have “either/ors” on sides of the continuum ; the creationists on one side and evolutionists on the other. The people in the middle have the potential for an “and/and” shift on this issue. You might be able to influence them. If we can move people from “either/or” to and/and, that would be a smaller move. This is a challenge sometimes for scientists, because many times scientists think in terms of black and white, “either/or”.
MK: I see, so you first try to take people to where they might consider that the science and their religious beliefs might be consistent and co-exist. Did you like that quote from Carl Sagan?
PD: A quote is good. But maybe this is not the best quote for his cause.
MK: Of course he quoted a scientist. I think if I were doing this video I would quote from a religious figure. Maybe from the Bible?
PD: Yes if you found a supportive quote that worked. His quote [from Carl Sagan] “When you’re in love you want to tell the world,” doesn’t really support his cause because someone on the other side could use this argument against him, For example, “Yes, I believe in creationism and want to tell the world about it.”
He could have also used an example or story of how a similar situation may have happened in the past. For example, Galileo and his theory of how the earth revolved around the sun. At the time many did not believe him and over time we have come to learn that this was in fact true.
MK: So if I could sum things up, Patrick, you suggested that you could improve the video by being careful with language, by asking questions, by explaining in positive language why you should consider believing in evolution, by using quotes from people your audience already trusts, by offering analogies or stories and by allowing for the possibility that both sides of the issue could be considered at once—for those people in the middle.
PD: And by understanding that changing peoples opinions is a process, not an event. If Bill Nye’s real intent was to convince people about evolution, then he has to look at this as a process. If he is thinking that in two minutes he’s going to do it–that’s “event” thinking. Don’t think “event,” think “process”. It takes time to influence people’s opinions.
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