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Emotional intelligence and other “soft skills” are key to communicating with science stakeholders

Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers

Roger D. Aines and Amy L. Aines
University of California Press
2019
265 pp.
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Scientists the world over use a familiar formula when communicating their research findings to their peers. Typically, a focused introduction is followed by a description of the methods used and the results obtained. The report concludes with a discussion of what the results mean in a broader context. But as reductions in government funding for scientific research become increasingly acute, more scientists are turning to nontraditional sources, including philanthropic organizations, patient advocacy groups, and angel investors, to support their work.

It’s no secret that effective science communicators are the most successful in the grants sweepstakes. As a result, a range of books, websites, videos, and workshops devoted to improving communication between scientists and the public are being increasingly marketed to the scientific community.

One admirable addition to this crowded field is Championing Science: Communicating Your Ideas to Decision Makers. Written by a practicing scientist (Roger Aines) and a scientific communications specialist (Amy Aines), this book offers a practical guide to optimizing all aspects of communications. Its aim is specific: to use proven methods to motivate decision-makers and colleagues to support, fund, and implement work.

The Aineses’ approach hinges on a concept the authors refer to as “self-awareness and self-correction.” Simply stated, they argue that a keen awareness of one’s personal style and an openness to external feedback can help an investigator modify rough spots and smooth out his or her presentation, with more efficient transfer of information being the welcomed by-product.

Championing Science begins by examining why many scientists are such poor communicators to all except their peers. Through the liberal use of examples and case studies, the authors demonstrate that mechanisms such as the use of jargon and paradigms make scientists exceedingly good at detail at the expense of the big picture, which unfortunately is the bit of most interest to decision-makers.

The middle section of the book is a practical guide to improving the mechanics of communicating one’s message. Whether you wish to create a dynamic slide presentation, in which the first two minutes can be the difference between success and failure; craft a compelling message; or design effective visual effects, the authors offer plenty of practical tips for improving information exchange. In the chapter on visual effects, for example, they rightly point out that each graphic included in a presentation should express only one point and that only one point should be made per slide. They refer the reader to the work of Edward Tufte (1) for a more detailed discussion of graphic design, and the appendix entitled “The Champion’s Bookshelf” is filled with additional annotated references to most of the classic texts covered by the book.

The final section lays out a number of areas that are arguably the most problematic for scientists and, perhaps, the most important for effectively persuading decision-makers through communication (2). Loosely organized around the idea of “emotional intelligence,” the book highlights commonsense actions that keep audiences engaged during a communication. Such things as avoiding the distraction of drawing circles in the air with a laser pointer, dressing professionally, or paraphrasing a question before answering it are all actions that scientists may think of as “business fluffery” but are immensely important to decision-makers because they send nonverbal cues that signal respect for the listener and validate differences of opinion.

The final chapter contains many additional case studies, along with presentation templates and self-assessment tools. One minor quibble with the book is the lack of mention of the “15-second elevator speech.” Being prepared to summarize all your work in a format that is quickly digestible by a decision-maker is an enormously handy tool when one is faced with an unexpected moment alone with a key player.

In Championing Science, Aines and Aines provide many practical tips and tricks for improving science communication at all levels, from one-on-one conversations to congressional testimony. It is a process that improves with constant attention and practice. Now more than ever, we need to be more effective champions of our work. We know how to communicate with our peers; let’s use this book and its methods to extend our reach and convey the same sense of wonder and excitement we feel about the process of scientific discovery to everyone.

References

  1. E. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information (Graphics Press, ed. 2, 2001).

  2. R. Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Harper Business, rev. ed., 2006).

About the author

The reviewer is the founder of Centrala Strategic, a translational biomedical consulting firm, and a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow.