So she signed up for the Strategic Communications Academy, where her final project was to develop an article for The Conversation, a news site that provides opportunities for academics to share their research with the general public. Nearly 350,000 people have read the article in dozens of publications, online and in print, including the Washington Post, Scientific American and, most importantly for her goals, Parents magazine.
“Ann and her colleagues taught us the importance of storytelling and connecting with your audience,” Scott says. “They gave me valuable insights about communication strategies and techniques that I now use in my own teaching and mentoring.”
Civil engineering Associate Professor David Prevatt shared Scott’s frustration about getting his message out. Prevatt is a structural engineer who studies how to make buildings more resilient in the face of major wind events like hurricanes and tornadoes.
In a recent talk, he showed an image of a neighborhood surrounding a school in Moore, Oklahoma, taken from the air days before a tornado hit. Then he showed a second photo taken after the tornado, when 40 percent of the buildings in the tornado’s path were leveled.
“What’s so frustrating to me about this is that I had published a paper just a few years earlier that – had it been applied — would have saved many of those houses,” he says. “But, that’s not even the thing that frustrates me most.”
And then he showed a paper of his from the 1990s, that said the same thing, and another from a different scholar that had been published in the 1970s on a similar topic, then another published in 1968, and then one published 121 years ago.
“This knowledge isn’t making its way from the journals into the design plans of builders,” he says. “We have known for more than 100 years how to prevent this kind of damage. I can’t just keep turning out more research papers. I have to be an advocate for the truth.”
Based on lessons he learned working with Christiano, Prevatt has begun developing an app to help home buyers better evaluate houses for resiliency and make minor modifications that could save their lives and livelihoods.
Historically, academic training has discouraged scientists from simplifying – critics would say oversimplifying – explanations of their research so that anyone besides other scientists can understand it.
“There is a narrative that scientists are not good communicators. That they’re content to tuck their work away in journals and share it at sparsely attended academic conferences,” Christiano says. “They are counseled not to invest time in working with the news media because they will be misunderstood and misquoted and will never be admitted to the National Academy of Sciences. I don’t believe that narrative.”
Christiano argues that in an era where the Pew Research Center has found that just 40 percent of Americans report strong trust in scientists, and researchers at MIT report that fake news on Twitter can travel as much as six times faster than the truth, it’s more important than ever for scientists to effectively communicate their findings.
Through the center’s own Journal for Public Interest Communications and publications like the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christiano and Research Director Annie Neimand argue for a more scientific approach to advocacy. They have taken the latest insights from cognitive, behavioral and social science and applied them to communications in new and unique ways.
In their article “Stop Raising Awareness Already” – one of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s most-read pieces ever – the two say “Too many organizations concentrate on raising awareness about an issue … without knowing how to translate that awareness into action.”
“For those working on a cause they care about, the first instinct is often to make sure that as many people as possible are aware of the problem,” they write. “But is it ever enough for people to simply know more about something? If, for example, the goal were to raise awareness among new parents of the importance of immunizing their children, you wouldn’t be satisfied if parents were simply aware. You’d want to be sure that they were also having their children immunized for the right diseases at the right age.”
In a follow-up to that article – “The Science of What Makes People Care” – that appeared on the cover of the Stanford journal in September, Neimand and Christiano laid out a plan for moving from awareness to action.
“The corporate sector has long taken advantage of science to market products from tobacco to alcohol to dish detergent. For the most part, the social sector has not made the same shift,” writes Neimand, who is also a doctoral candidate in sociology. “Social service organizations may conduct their own research through focus groups and surveys, but most lack the resources to root their communications strategies in published academic research. When people working on behalf of social causes have rooted their strategy in science, intentionally or not, they have tended to be highly successful.”
The article outlines five principles based on science for communicating more effectively:
- Join the Community – People engage and consume information that affirms their identities and aligns with their deeply held values and worldview, and avoid or reject information that challenges or threatens them. This requires advocates to move beyond a focus on building and disseminating a message to stepping into the world of their target community.
- Communicate in Images – Concrete, visual language engages the visual and emotional areas of our brains.
- Invoke Emotion with Intention – Research tells us that people are really good at avoiding information for three reasons: It makes them feel bad; it obligates them to do something they do not want to do; or it threatens their identity, values, and worldview. Although people avoid information that makes them feel bad, they are attracted to things associated with pleasant emotions.
- Create Meaningful Calls to Action – Effective calls to action follow three rules: They are specific; the target community sees how the solution will help solve the problem; and they are something the community knows how to do.
- Tell Better Stories – Storytelling is the best tool we have for helping people care about issues. People are more likely to remember information they get in narrative form. Stories have the unique power to convey new perspectives and thereby lower counter-arguing, increase empathy, and capture and maintain people’s attention.
“People fail to act not because they do not have enough information, but because they don’t care or they don’t know what to do,” the two conclude. “If you want people to get on board, you have to make them care, and you have to show them how they can make a difference.”
Their approach to advocacy clearly resonates at places like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.