Essentials in (science) communication: ‘So what?’

This blog is about plain and simple, straightforward, old-fashioned communication theory, none of that 2.0 social media stuff I love to write about. A tiny glimpse behind the scenes of our work as press officers.

Inspiration for this blog came after having given one of my guest lectures on ‘Press and Publicity’. I’ve done more of these, as well as media training sessions with colleagues, and it’s always great fun to do these sessions. It’s nice to talk about your work, the questions you ask, the choices you make, and why you write down the things you do in a press release.

Goal – target audience – message – medium
The basis of these presentations, and essentially the basis of my work, boils down to the simple communication theory of ‘goal – target audience – message – medium’. Communication to me is about thinking logically about who you want to reach with a certain message, what you would like them to do with that information, and deciding upon the best way to deliver that message. Signed, sealed and delivered. Simple. Still, it’s always nice to get people to think about their scientific work along these lines.

The part about ‘message’ looks into how you tell your story. If it’s a press release you’re sending out, you want journalists to do something with your news. It makes sense to ‘tell your story’ in a way that will appeal to them, and in a way that stands out among the tens or hundreds of other press releases awaiting their attention in their mailboxes. That means using words that trigger journalists, like ‘biggest’, ‘first’, ‘smallest’, ‘highest’, ‘lowest’, throwing in a celebrity, playing on the relevance to society, or by adding the wow-factor to your release.

But what I really want the audience to take away from my lectures or training sessions is that every story should at least answer ‘So what?’ – not to be confused with ‘Who cares?’ in this setting by the way –. Why is this story important to the reader/viewer? Why are you telling me this? Why do I want or need to know this? So what?
During the presentations I use the following example to clarify what I mean.

Picture this: scientists at the Faculty of Applied Sciences have been working on the design of a highly advanced microscope. They’ve finally been granted the funding and can start building the actual thing.

So what?
‘Great news, we did it, and there’s cake for the whole department today! Plus, there will be some disturbance down the hall the next few weeks because of the construction process.’
This is great news for the immediate colleagues in the department of course: an internal e-mail goes out, and the local newsletter has an extra edition. But for the outside world, we can certainly do better than that.

So what?
‘Well, this will be a very special microscope! It has pica-Hertz, twin cam shafts, nano electronic stuff, injection thingies, and very advanced gadgets that are all state of the art!’
True technical scientists love to tell this part of the story, it’s what they’re all about.
All scientists in general really want you to get this part straight, down to the last nanowire, detail, nuance and formula, and they’re usually also quite happy to stop here.
But hey, I’m sorry, I’m just a simple press officer without even a PhD to my name, so I don’t get all of the stuff they’re talking about. Luckily, I don’t have to graduate on this microscope.
This is interesting material for other microscope builders, nano/micro technologists or the optics group of the Faculty across the street, and potentially a very small special interest technical magazine with a microscope section. Still quite a small audience.

So what?
‘All of this state of the art microscope stuff makes it possible to follow processes in live cells in real time.’
Ah, this is getting interesting, especially for theoretical cell biologists, so we’re moving into different fields of interest here, we’re branching out! Definitely news for some medical and/or microbiology news site. But there’s room for another step.

So what?
‘This gives us better insight in, for example, the way cancer cells grow, and with it we can track the workings of medicines live and in real time.’
Ah, now we’re talking! This is starting to make some sense, even to me, and it is something we can tell a much wider audience, using a headline like ‘New microscope sheds light on growth cancer cells’.
I’m not much inclined to shout out something like ‘New microscope will bring cure for cancer’, but that may be a matter of style.
Now we can start tracking back along our path of ‘So what?’ questions, and explain how this amazing microscope brings about these marvelous advances, and the story will practically write itself from there. Well, sort of.

You should of course stop asking ‘So what?’ at the right moment, otherwise things might become awkward. Asking ‘So what?’ after someone has just claimed ‘This will bring us the cure for cancer!’ doesn’t quite sound right. But usually it becomes intuitively clear when you have reached the right level of explanation, just stop at that point.

So what?
It is actually quite scary to ask a whole room of theoretical mathematicians ‘So what?’, as I did some time ago during one of those guest lectures. Luckily I wasn’t lynched or anything, and they playfully confronted me with their own ‘So what’s?’ during drinks afterwards, so all was well… 🙂
And us press officers are usually not that blunt when we interview you in real life, questions will be asked more subtly and diplomatic of course.
But now you know where we are going with our delicate line of questioning.
So what?

This is a translation of a blog written some time ago in Dutch.

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