Let’s consider an analogy from the field of chemistry. If a chemist wishes to conduct a specific chemical reaction, he/she needs to assemble all of the appropriate reagents, solvents, substrates, etc., in the proper vessel under the appropriate conditions (i.e., pH, temperature, pressure). Simply getting everything together in the proper place may not be sufficient to cause the reaction to begin, however. One must provide a nudge, in the form of applying additional energy, before the reaction can proceed. In chemistry, this is called the “energy of activation.”
|(photo from: americanscientist.org)|
For the scientist communicating to the public about a contentious topic, the development of carefully crafted scientific messages is analogous to the effort made by the chemist to assemble all of the components needed for a chemical reaction. Unless, however, the scientist overcomes the “energy of activation” barrier, the audience may remain skeptical and may not be receptive to the message.
If you are a scientist wishing to overcome this activation energy barrier, a great way to do this is to humanize yourself. Scientists are often trained to “let the science do the talking” (translated: “it’s OK to be boring”), so anything you can do to break down this stereotype might increase your audience’s receptivity to your message. Personalize your experiences and tell stories about yourself. Demonstrate your passion for your chosen profession and explain your motivations for doing what you are doing. Illustrate to the audience that you, too, are a member of the community and may have common experiences with many in the audience such as raising a family, belonging to community organizations, or having specific hobbies.
With respect to the topic being discussed, be comfortable sharing your own attitudes and personal behaviors (i.e., Do you seek out organic foods? Are you worried about eating GMOs? Do you feed conventional produce to your family members?). Making such efforts to humanize yourself may not change how the audience ultimately responds to your messages, but it may increase the likelihood that the audience will hear you out or wish to engage with you further down the road.
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