By Bethany Huot
You may have heard the saying that how well you understand something is evidenced by how well you can explain or teach it to someone else. There are many things we think we know until we try to express them clearly and concisely to someone else! Even if we are experts on a subject, it is important to take time to think about how to best communicate it.
In part 1 of Science is Communication – A Time to R.O.A.R., we defined Communication as “the successful exchange of ideas or information between two or more people.” We then focused on Why Communication is Important, How to Communicate with a R.O.A.R., and How to Develop Communication as a skill. In part 2, Science is Communication – How the Story’s Told, we will zoom in closer and, as promised, talk about our M.A.D. skills. Message, Audience, and Delivery are the essential elements of using your R.O.A.R. to construct an individual story to effectively communicate specific information.
In part 1, we discussed how Relevance, Objective, Approach and Response (R.O.A.R.) provide a framework within which we can build our Message. However, this framework is only useful if we take time to use it. How often do you stop to consider what you want to communicate before you start talking, writing or expressing things on your face or with your body language? Have you ever stopped to consider the potential negative ramifications of NOT defining your intended message before you start communicating? The importance of identifying the “Big Ideas” may seem obvious for writing a manuscript for publication or presenting ideas for future research during a job interview, but it can be equally important during the casual, unplanned interactions throughout the day. In this context, evaluating the Relevance of our message may stop us from saying something careless or hurtful, or considering the Objective and desired Response may help us identify the right Approach to avoid unnecessary conflict.
Of course, we often do not have time to sit down and reflect before each communication. This is another reason why commitment to developing this skill is essential. The more we practice, the faster we will be able to define and effectively relay our message. As we develop this proficiency, it may be a good idea to take time for reflection at the beginning and end of each day. What messages do we want to convey? What messages might have been conveyed unintentionally? Are there specific ways we can improve our communication?
So you have defined your message and are ready to R.O.A.R. The second Key Element is The Audience. To whom are you speaking? HINT: Your audience is NEVER you! No matter who is in your audience, they will never have your exact knowledge, experiences or perspectives. Because of this, it is important to provide the necessary information to help relay your message in a way that is tailored to the person or people with whom you are communicating. This means that the same message would look or sound different to different audiences, i.e. your PI vs. your mom. We tend to assume that if someone does not understand our message, the problem lies with them. They just aren’t listening, or they just don’t care. While this may be true sometimes, it is always good to do a self-assessment before casting blame. Ask yourself, “What Language Barriers exist?” This is not only applicable to people from countries other than your own! It also applies to people who are not scientists or work in other fields, those with a different research background or who just don’t think like you. Don’t assume that just because the person in front of you looks similar to you and works in the same lab as you they share your opinions, perspectives, values or vocabulary.
On that note, don’t assume that someone’s value, intelligence or understanding of your message is defined by their agreement or response. It is critical that the foundation of all our communication is respect for our audience. This should be made clear with our Words, Tone and Body Language! If there seems to be a break-down in communication, remember that Listening is one of the most important aspects of communication. While this may seem obvious in live conversations, it is also applicable to written communication. In fact, without a person in front of us to provide tone and body language, it can be easy to assume the worst in written communication. Last year I received reviews on a manuscript submitted for publication. Rather than reacting emotionally following the initial read, I went through each comment multiple times, and intentionally and objectively sought to hear what constructive critique each reviewer provided for the improvement of my manuscript.
Al Lautenslager, Author, Speaker, and Consultant says: “When you engage listeners in a powerful, entertaining, and informative story, they remember it, and many times they ask for more.” Isn’t this the goal of all communication, to have your audience “remember it,” and, if possible, have them “ask for more”? To back up Al’s statement, research has shown that our brains are literally wired to best receive information presented as a story (Stevens et al., 2010, PNAS)! Information communicated in “Story” form rather than just recited as a list of facts enables a higher degree of “neural coupling” between the communicator and their audience. In other words, by using a narrative structure, our audience will comprehend and remember more. Just because we are scientists who collect data and seek to be objective does not mean we have to be boring robots. We can still evoke emotion – Why does this matter? Why is it exciting to you? What was most surprising? Engaging our audience in this way creates a bond with them, giving them interest and ownership in the communication; it leaves them asking for more.
Every good story has a Hook, Engages the audience & presents a clear Conclusion. To connect this with R.O.A.R., the Hook should explain why your audience cares and wants to listen. However, it is important to present the Relevance in a manner that draws them in and piques their interest so they are anticipating what’s next. Once we’ve drawn our audience in, we want to Engage them to keep them listening and we want to be sure to provide a clear Conclusion. This is where we scientists struggle the most. We tend to list out a long series of findings that emphasize the amount of work we did rather than the important question or problem we were addressing and the key findings that resulted from the work.
At The Pub Club, we found Randy Olson‘s ABT method to be a useful protocol for turning a bland research talk into a story (click here for his TED talk; click on image for a related article). Rather than presenting a boring series of results connected by “Ands,” replace some of the “Ands” with “Buts” and “Therefores.” The “But” creates conflict, which helps engage your audience, and the “Therefore” highlights a conclusion to provide resolution. For example, this boring talk, “We tested Hypothesis 1 And found results 1. And We tested Hypothesis 2 And found results 2…” can be converted into a story by saying, “We were interested in Big Question X for Important Reason Y And thought Hypothesis 1 might provide a solution. We tested Hypothesis 1 And found results 1. But, these results presented a conflict that led us to generate Hypothesis 2. Therefore, we conducted more experiments that led us to discover results 2.” See the difference? Of course, in a longer talk, it may be necessary to use several ABT sequences or there may be multiple sentences comprising each part (see MLK example in figure), but the concept is the same.
Putting it all together…
Now that we have discussed the many relevant pieces involved in communication, how do we put it all together? In constructing our message, it may be helpful to use a bit of backwards design: start with the Objective, then consider the Relevance of the message to the target audience and the desired Response. Based on this, we can define an Approach for crafting a story that will effectively deliver our message to our specific audience to hook and engage them, resulting in elicitation of the desired Response.
In closing, I find it helpful to recognize that making mistakes is a part of being human. None of us is or will ever be perfect! However, we can commit to being intentional about improving our communication and to taking ownership when we don’t get it right. While some miscommunications are easy to diagnose, others may be subtle (tone, body language). This is where strong Listening skills and Respect for our Audience are most important! To keep the lines of communication open, we must have the courage and humility to acknowledge when miscommunication occurs – unintentionally or otherwise – and do what we can to correct the message and alleviate any damage. Just remember, we are Always communicating something. Our choice is to either Own and Shape the Message or throw the dice and hope that our intended message gets through – or that, if it doesn’t, the Consequences of what does are not too severe.
Here is an example of how your story can be told with a R.O.A.R. and how no communication is to small to apply this method. This is a PodCast I did with Max Johnson of The Food Fix, communicating the Science I did as a Ph.D student.