Aug 31, 2015 | Atlanta, GA
Researchers spend a significant portion of their lives becoming experts in their field. As a result, many of them welcome the opportunity to speak to fellow researchers at workshops and conferences. But when it comes to speaking to lay audiences — particularly the popular press — many researchers put on the brakes because they are afraid of being misunderstood or misquoted. But, what are the benefits to overcoming this fear and communicating with a broader audience?
Professor Kim Cobb of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences notes that benefits do accrue with time but may not be obvious to most researchers.
“The problem is, most of the benefits may not be of direct benefit to [the researchers]. They are missing opportunities to inspire the next generation of scientists in their field, to garner public support for federal research funding, or to educate voters and policymakers about science that could inform public policy.”
Jud Ready, deputy director of Georgia Tech’s Institute for Materials, said, “The benefits [of speaking to non-technical audiences] outweigh the detriments to a large degree.”
Ready pointed out that for researchers who want to license research, appearing in the popular press is one way to make connections with those who control the purse strings.
“Many venture capitalists and industry funding decision-makers attend technical conferences and read technical journals,” he said. “But they can’t attend every conference or read every single journal, so much work is missed. There is a better chance for your work to get recognized immediately if it gets highlighted by the popular press.”
Cobb reinforced the importance of engaging with the public to secure financial support.
“In an era when public funding for science is on the decrease and private funding for scientific research is increasing, being able to succinctly and convincingly pitch an idea to potential private donors and foundations is a wonderful asset,” she said.
Another benefit is in creating an alternative network of professionals — professionals who work in the communication sphere, Cobb said. “The media greatly value the skillsets honed through frequent public engagement, so you are more likely to be called on for press opportunities.”
Getting Over the First Hurdle
Cobb admits to, at first, being reluctant about engaging the public, having witnessed vicious attacks leveled at some of the more outspoken climate scientists about a decade ago.
“Those attacks continue today, but they are clearly diluted through the constant din of an increasing number of climate scientists willing to speak out on their research. I felt a strong moral obligation to counter the fear tactics of the climate skeptic community by engaging the public in the conversation about climate,” said Cobb. “The first time I gave a public lecture on climate change science almost 10 years ago, I was very afraid that I would be cut down after my talk. Instead, I was surrounded by people saying things like: ‘I had no idea it was so bad’ and ‘This is the first time I have understood the science behind climate change.’ I was hooked.”
For those researchers whose nerves keep them from getting over that first hurdle like Cobb did, Joey Asher says the best way to deal with nerves is to practice.
An adjunct lecturer in the Scheller College of Business and president of Speechworks, a personal coaching business, Asher says, “If you’re going to give a presentation to the public, practice it out loud from beginning to end without stopping — like it’s a play. Then do it again and again until you’re comfortable you can deliver it without thinking too much.”
Asher suggests the same approach when speaking to the media.
“You just practice answering questions,” he said. “Write down all the questions you think you might get and practice answering them. You can actually ask the reporters for the questions in advance, and they’ll often oblige. But if they don’t, you can usually guess what questions they will ask.”
Ready supplements Asher’s advice with the recommendation of making real-world connections.
“I use analogies a lot,” he said. “Through my use of analogies, I can take an uncommon subject like nanotubes and relate it to a common subject.”
Ready also advises colleagues to not let fear of being misquoted stop them from speaking to the press. He said they should, though, be mindful they might not always have the option to review the story prior to publication, which is why it is so important to speak simply.
In any case, he said, “Most people recognize that an error in a story is not the fault of the researcher, but is usually a misunderstanding by the reporter.”