17 November 2014

Scientists: know your audience!

Scientific organizations, for the most part, talk about important developments in science with other scientists.  These organizations can expect certain things from their audience: an exceptionally high level of science literacy, an inherent enthusiasm for the subject matter, and even a desire to contribute personally and professionally to the work. The burden is on this educated and emotionally invested audience to comprehend the dense, complex material.

Of course, every now and then scientists will predict exactly where a comet will be ten years into the future, design and launch a spaceship to meet it there, snare it with a grappling hook, conduct a bunch of experiments on it, and send the results back via a solar-powered radio.  In short, they will do the things that inspire millions of people to get more involved with science and understand why it's so important.

These opportunities are exceptionally rare.  Science is a methodical, incremental, conservative process.  But science - and scientific organizations - increasingly depend on the patronage and support from the rest of us. So when scientists pull off a "once-in-a-lifetime" achievement, they can't let anything get in the way of telling the story of science.

And this got in the way of telling the story.

This is Dr. Matt Taylor, one of the brilliant scientists who led the project, at the mission press conference.  And yes, he's wearing a shirt that looks like a perverted unicorn barfed on it. And yes, he called this project "the sexiest mission there's ever been" and joked about the comet, "she's sexy, but I never said she was easy."

So people who don't follow science closely expect to hear this amazing story, and instead they see a guy who looks and sounds like he went into astrophysics because he thought it would help him score with the ladies.  And that's what they remember, at least for now.

To get more professional perspective, I reached out to an old friend who is an expert in communications - and interestingly enough, men's fashion - Chris Hogan of Off the Cuff.  Chris lives and works in Washington DC and still remembers when President Obama wore a white tie to his inaugural ball when he shouldn't have.  He also remembers when the President wore a tan suit to a press conference to talk about a number of global crises and how the media ignored his comments on Syria because they were struck by how casual his clothes were.

"Anytime your message is really important, you don't want anything to distract from that," Chris said. "What you wear should be forgettable, in a good way."  If you want to inject some of your personality as a scientist in your dress, Chris likes Neil deGrasse Tyson's style with his cosmos-inspired ties or vests.   I asked him what he'd wear if giving this press conference, and he said "some kind of neutral blazer, an open-collar dress shirt - unless you're known for those ties like Neil deGrasse Tyson has.  Neutral, authoritative, not stuffy - look like a responsible person."

When the audience isn't the same 300 people you always talk with, the rules are different.  And here's the other thing - when Dr. Taylor made his faux pas, he wasn't just distracting the audience from the story scientists wanted to tell.  He was telling an all-too familiar story many scientists would rather not share.

Science, like many other fields, has a problem with sexism.  Sometimes it's people who make clueless wardrobe choices and make stupid remarks in unusual, uncomfortable situations - like Dr. Taylor, who publicly and tearfully apologized.   Sometimes it's much worse. Often, those problems are institutional.  And too often, women feel like have no place to turn.

And of course, the public discourse has brought out the worst in some people. Mostly anonymous and all pathetic "men's rights activists" have engaged in their usual hypocrisy - women need to "lighten up" about a man's comments or insults or jokes, but a few tweets' worth of criticism from women constitutes a "lynch mob" of "feminist bullies" that deserve death threats and constant streams of abuse.  

I don't think anyone at ESA - Dr. Taylor included - ever wanted this.  But speaking to an audience beyond your peers requires a higher level of awareness and scrutiny.  It means the burden is on you to understand more about how your messages - verbal and otherwise - will be received.  

And when the stakes are high, it means you should hire a professional. It means you should know as much about your audience as possible - like if there are cultural cues or buzzwords that mean one thing to you and something different to them.  It means you should develop an actual strategy about how you will reach your audience.  It means you should build messages and test them to see if they resonate with a sample of your audience.  It means you should build relationships with the most influential members of your audience to make sure those messages are seen as credible and valid. It means you should test to see if your messages have changed people's opinions about you or your work.  

And yes, it probably means you should dress and speak like a grownup, even if the amazing work you do will make you feel like a kid again.

Because yeah, snagging a comet with a grappling hook is absolutely amazing.


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