Monday, August 18, 2014

What I learned from the podcast: You Are Not So Smart on The New Science Communicators

Host David McRaney begins this episode of his very excellent You Are Not So Smart podcast by reminiscing about Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, James Burke, Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy. Decades ago, when some of us were kids, the popularity of these entertaining and educational shows made a big contribution to science education beyond what we got in school.

McRaney reckons high returns from reality television programming then got in the way, and these shows all but disappeared or lost out to ones about exploding things. The only bright note on television, and it is a big one, is the recent reappearance of Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. At this point I had to pause the podcast to meet a colleague for lunch, wincing a bit over the passing of this golden age of television science.

But when I picked it up again, McRaney’s story became more encouraging as he described a new generation of science communicators who have gained huge audiences through podcasts and video episodes on YouTube. The average audience of Game of Thrones is 7 million people, and the new Cosmos holds its own with an audience of 6 million (if I wrote the numbers down right). According to McRaney most YouTube channels get about the same amount of viewers, or more.

For example, there are 7.5 million subscribers to the Vsauce YouTube channels, and their video on what would happen if everyone earth jumped at the same time has over 13 million views! They passed a milestone in June: one billion views across the entire video series.

McRaney’s guest on the podcast is Joe Hanson from the blog and PBS-sponsored YouTube channel, It’s Okay To Be Smart. Hanson says there have always been curious and intelligent people who think science is fun and want to know more. It’s just that now we can follow our curiosity via podcasts and YouTube programs that circumvent the old gatekeepers: TV producers.

McRaney’s entire conversation with Hanson is well worth the listen. Their discussion ranges from critiques of pop science based on trivia (‘the science of farts’!), to the need to elicit emotional responses in science communication, to the importance of connecting science with meaning. They also talk about why it’s important for people to like the person who’s talking to them about science and what story-telling does for science communication that documentaries can’t.

Their conversation about scientific literacy and ideology was particularly interesting -- making a distinction between folks’ understanding of how scientists view a topic and their acceptance of that as truth. The answers can be a political litmus test on either side. (For more on this topic, I recommend this essay about the importance of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s public statements on GM technology.)

Not only have I found myself talking nonstop about everything I learned from this podcast to anyone who will listen, I’ve also been wondering how this trend applies to those of us with an interest in communicating better about the science around agriculture, food and nutrition. 

Most of the YouTube or video content on agriculture, food and nutrition consists of advocacy pieces produced, hosted and promoted directly by interested parties. There’s not a lot on the science itself.

These new general science videos seem to skew toward engineering, physics, animal or medical sciences. I was able to easily find only a few on topics related to plant science or agriculture. Scishow has episode about bananas which describes how they are cultivated and efforts to combat plant diseases. They also have one on changes in honeybee population (colony collapse disorder), including potential links to agriculture production methods. The Crash Course channel has an episode on the agricultural revolution. But that's as far as it goes, for now.

Maybe we are not so smart!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Report: What I learned from Lead with a Story

Lead with a Story: a guide to crafting business narratives that captivate, convince and inspire
by Paul Smith 
2012, AMACOM

I sat down to read Lead with a Story early last week, armed with a pad of blue sticky notes. When I finished it a few days later, the book was stuffed with blue -- quotes, key points, book recommendations and ideas for my own stories that were prompted while I read. Although this book is geared toward communicators and leaders in the business world, I believe it is broadly useful to communicators of all sorts, on at least three levels.

First, Lead with a Story is organized around different types of business situations that can be helped by storytelling.  Smith explains why ‘corporate storytelling’ can bring bolster achievement, motivation, teamwork, and personal development. At this level, the book will be very helpful for leaders and others involved in organizational development (I thought of my sister, the human resources exec) in almost any aspect of ‘people management’ -- ranging from setting a vision, to valuing diversity, to providing coaching and feedback. In the chapter “Set policy without rules,” for example, Smith advises: 
“The main way people learn the rules is through the stories they hear about other people – those who broke the rules and suffered the consequences, and those who didn’t and got rewarded. So in addition to your legally required policy manual, what you need are some good stories.”

Second, Smith builds his case for the usefulness of stories by incorporating into each chapter a number of specific stories that have been used successfully by others in working through business challenges. In the chapter on rules, there are four different stories: how monkeys learn behavior and keep following it, employees who posed as trainees to get free lunches, how a new CFO handled long-term financial misstatements and what happens when expense approvals get out of hand. There’s a helpful index in the back to make it easy for readers to use these same stories in their own work right away.

Finally, the ‘how-to’ chapters in this book are very good. They help the reader to understand what makes a story a story, the important elements, why a story should usually be told in a particular order, and stylistic recommendations to help stories be as powerful as they can be. The final chapter includes excellent questions to prompt discovery of stories from my own experience and those around me.

My favorite of the “how-to” chapters is the one about appealing to emotion. A lot of my work is with scientists of one sort or another, people who are very data-oriented and find it difficult to bring this into their presentations and interactions with people.  So I loved hearing that emotion is a defining element of story. As Smith says:
"If you don’t generate an emotional reaction in your audience, you haven't told a story. It might be a good memo, or perhaps a case study. But it's not a story. "

I also liked the discussion of engaging the audience into the story through ‘teachable moments’ or demonstrations. My personal favorite example of this (not in the book) comes from the first 5 minutes of Bill Gates’ 2009 TED talk on malaria. I’m not going to give it away – go watch it for yourself!

I was pleased to see references to other storytelling teachers that I admire and whose books I've been recommending for years, including Chip & Dan Heath, Annette Simmons, and Stephen Denning. I made a list of others to seek out based on the wisdom that Paul pulled from them for this book, including Language of Success by Tom Sant and Elements of Persuasion by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman. 

So stay tuned for more book reports!