Think of your stereotypical scientist. What does he (or she) look like?
Does he have glasses that look like two large black blocks? A lab coat wrapped neatly around him? Perhaps he has a pocket protector tucked snuggly into his lab coat. Maybe he put a little too much effort into making sure his shirt and khakis match just right.
Here we see three scientists in their natural habitat.
Regardless, there is something that the stereotypical scientist lacks and its crucial to hooking an audience into science. It’s a knack for telling interesting stories and spreading information.
Are you saying scientists are bad at telling stories?
Not quite. I’m not talking about your typical bar stories here. The scientist may be one of the most interesting people you know. Maybe she’s conquered Mt. Everest and tells about the snow crunching beneath her boots as they carve into the mountain’s face. Perhaps he’ll tell the story of the time he ran with the bulls in Spain, where his heart pounded as the bull breathed down his neck.
Here we see a scientist not in his natural habitat.
Sure, these are fascinating stories told by equally great people. However, they don’t translate into generating interest in a scientific area or idea.
For those in academic/scientific areas that publish, think about it. What kind of language is being used in the papers? Who is the audience that will absorb this information? Can someone easily pick up the article and understand it? More importantly, will they want to read more about your science after they finish reading your first paper?
For most academics in the sciences, here’s the usual case:
Language? Straight to the point, usually full of jargon.
Audience? Experts and students in the same field. Anyone outside is usually blocked by a paywall.
Easy to understand? Usually not.
Will they want to read more? Depends on your academic cred.
Here, we see a problem. We have a disconnect between the science we create and the translation of the results to others. Many times in academia, our writing and creative work is severely limited to those in our field. For example, there are many interesting theories and studies being performed in the field of ingestive behavior (shameless plug!). However, the field is so niched that research almost never reaches those in the general population who would find it beneficial.
There are exceptions, such as ground-breaking discoveries that mass media usually interprets incorrectly (due to the jargon problem and sensationalizing). But most of the time, scientists have to live with very few people reading or even knowing about their work. If they’re lucky, an article will get thousands of reads per year…but most articles barely break into the hundreds per year. Considering there are now over 7 billion people on this planet, that’s less than 1 percent of people knowing your work exists.
Scientists tell stories, but don’t spread it
If a scientist publishes in Science or Nature, it’s kind of a big deal. Why?
Because many of the journals rate on impact factor and those two journals happen to be at the top (in other words, how often people care to read and cite the article in their field). I take issue with this being the sole metric on which we judge science by. There should be another factor on how one’s science affects everyone else not within a given field.
I propose a new factor: I’ll call it the public recognition factor. How would this work? It would be judged by how far your story spreads in the world. It would be easy to see how your story impacts others as you would know how many people actually read it. This would avoid the problem of few people ever reading your work. There would be a clear incentive to spread the ideas to others. But let’s table this idea and get to the core issue of availability:
PLEASE SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU’RE FAMILIAR WITH SCIENTIFIC STORYTELLING
(For those unfamiliar with storytelling in science, scientists explain their research as a continuation of a story being told. We’re not talking about a story you’d put into a novel, but the area the scientist is studying. For example, a scientist determining a mechanism of how a drug works tells its story (the mechanism being the protagonist, with all its gritty details)).
Why should we limit access to this information? After all, all of us are working to push humanity forward. Additionally, most scientists are government funded and the taxpayers are our investors. How great would it be if taxpayers got a huge return on their investment in the form of easily accessible knowledge?
Therefore, I propose a new way to tell our stories. And it involves marketing.
Marketing? You want me to sell my science?
Yes. I want you to sell your science.
However, I’m not asking you to slap Pepsi Co. labels on your research or become an annoying used car salesman. I’m asking you to frame your ideas in a new way to make people want to listen to your science.
Marketing is defined as telling a story that other people want to believe. The job of a (good) marketer is to live, breathe, and tell that story in such a way that people can’t help to believe in it. Great marketing occurs when new people join in believing and spreading the story. That is the ultimate victory in marketing: to spread a story worth believing and is adapted by the masses.
Let me give an example of great marketing:
Many people love Apple and use their Mac computers religiously. Why? It’s the story that Apple tells through its marketing. When you look at a MacBook computer, you feel the quality and the craftsmanship that went into the smooth metal chassis. You admire the snappiness as you drag the mouse in the latest iteration of OSx. It’s a story of superior quality and excellence in design.
And it’s not just the products that tell the story, the people live it to. When you talk to one of the engineers or CEO Tim Cook, you understand the mission and why they’re creating this machinery. There is no doubt as to what they’re seeking to accomplish. That story becomes contagious.
This is the reason for the near-zealous following of Apple and its viral popularity. It’s because people can tell Apple’s story as their own. They become a part of the Apple family because they believe the story and that story makes them feel great. They can’t help but talk about it.
Let’s put this in perspective of the personal. Throughout our day, everything we do and write is selling a story. You may not realize this, but we are marketing and selling our persona every day. You are your own brand. The way you speak, dress, act, and look at people all tells a story. Sometimes it may be a story you don’t seek to tell, but any interaction you have in the world is marketing your brand.
What’s the point of these examples? As scientists, we need to push our brand and market our stories in such a way that people want to believe in it and can’t help talking about.
Basic marketing principles for science
First and foremost, the science needs to be easily digestible. The language when we write should be clear to the average person. Avoiding jargon is a plus, but I think everyone gets when it’s unavoidable. However, take care to explain the jargon if it’s used. If the work is easy to read, more eyeballs are going to want to read it. When you write about science for mass consumption, keep the general audience in mind..
Second, we need to live our science. Are you investigating the detrimental effects of artificial sweeteners and how they may be bad for you? It’s not a great idea to have a Diet Coke in your hand when speaking to audiences. Are you studying a new communication technique that improves interactions among couples? You should be demonstrating and using it as much as possible with family, friends, and strangers. Find a way to get your science into your daily life and make it relatable. Think about Tim Cook and Apple. How can you make your story as contagious as theirs?
Third, do not limit yourself to paywall publishers. Yes, Elsivier et al. runs a tight racket and holds copyright to many science journals. However, the average person will never get access to it due to paywall and copyright. Make your work accessible to that person. You don’t have to publish the original article, there are other ways. Educate the community on your ideas through speaking opportunities. Start a blog and showcase your ideas to the world. You have an audience waiting and they’re dying to hear it, no matter what you may think.
Lastly, make it a story worth believing and telling to others. As scientists, we work hard trying to piece together the story that drives us. Focus on crafting a story that is important to the world. Make it worth their time investment when they read your article or listen to your words. This is how you create loyal readers and believers of your ideas. You reward them. In this case, you reward them by enriching them with new ideas that improve their lives.
Sell your science well
These are some of the basic principles of marketing that can get you started in reaching a larger audience. Many people crave to learn about science. Take a look at the Facebook page for I f***ing love science. There are over 21.7 million people relying on that page for their science fix. That’s a lot of people waiting for great science to read. Make it easier and give them the quality science they want. They’re waiting to hear your story.
I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favorite marketers. I apply it to everything I create and do.
The market is the world. Make it easy for them to interact with your work
Thank you for reading. Many of the marketing principles discussed will be expanded upon in future posts. Please let me know your thoughts. I would appreciate your input!