Living In The New Normal

Nancy Baron (second from right) with moderator Frank Sesno (second from left) and fellow panelists Drew Westen and Randy Olsen (l-r) share insights on how thoughtful communications and leadership can be used to enact change in a changing world. Photo by Daniel Bayer of the Aspen Environment Institute via @AIEnvironment on Twitter.

The author with moderator Hari Sreenivasan and fellow panelists Frank Sesno and Randy Olsen (from left to right) share insights on how communications and leadership can be used to enact change in a changing world. Photo by Daniel Bayer of the Aspen Institute via Twitter.

How do you get people to change the world? The world is changing already, with and without our help… climate change, population, consumption, and extinction are all on the rise. But… imagine if every academic environmental scientist could communicate why their science matters – to the public, policy makers, journalists, and their own communities – now that would change the world!

I posed that thought to over 200 environmental experts – academics, journalists, pundits, activists, decision makers, futurists, and citizens – gathered in our plenary at the 2012 Aspen Environmental Forum entitled, “How to Get People to Change the World.” With all this change, what we were really there to discuss was: What does it mean to be living in “the new normal?” Thought-leaders pointed out the many problems and challenges we’re facing, but they also kept the mood upbeat with the inclusion of bright spots, solutions and constructive discussion about how to chart the course ahead. And, in my plenary in particular, how communications and leadership are critical to shaping it.

My topic was “Communicate Like a Leader” and the link between communications and leadership. Communications is central to the enterprise of “would-be” change agents – whether breaching the boundaries of disciplines or expertise, or amassing votes, or mobilizing action. Good communicators can articulate a vision, focus a debate, and cut to the essence of their argument. They can make their points compelling – even to those who disagree. And they can make people sit up, take notice, and care. They know how to reach their audience by making it personal, addressing the “so what?” and speaking from the heart. We experienced this first hand with the brilliant roster of speakers. [Read more…]

Credibility Currency

Cultivate the credibility currency that's right for you.  Image courtesy of: Images_of_Money via Flickr Creative Commons.

 I get the following phone call frequently:

“Hi, I am from [insert conservation advocacy or campaign here]. Congress is considering landmark legislation right now; this could be the most important hearing in history. Our grandchildren will live better lives if this legislation passes. It will allow polar bears to flourish, panda bears to proliferate, and bring water back to the Colorado. It will provide jobs. This bill will pass IF you can get me a scientist to come to the hearing in three days, and say [insert explicit support for policy the organization wants passed]?”

Our answer to this question is always “no.”

Last week I gave a webinar to the Consultative Group on Biodiversity  – a collaborative of foundations making grants on environmental issues – on the topic of “the role of science in campaigns.” I leapt at this opportunity, a chance to clarify our stance; something that I know frustrates many.

Whether it’s COMPASS, those involved in advancing policy agendas, or the scientists they seek, it’s all about credibility.  Credibility, which has objective and subjective components, is really about how believable any of us are as a source. We each define our own unique ‘credibility currency’- the characteristics that allow us to uphold our trustworthiness and expertise. [Read more…]

Pitch Perfect – A Primer For Scientists Reaching Out To Journalists

 (This is a modified version of a guest post for the the #Scifund Challenge. Find the original here.)

The discussion was bright and busy. Everyone at the table was talking rapidly, asking questions and sharing thoughts about science journalism and outreach. Everyone, that was, except the scientist sitting across from me. She had been tentative and largely silent, but suddenly she was grinning.

“I get it,” she said, “I am a runner, right? People are always saying, ‘It’s hard! It takes time! I don’t know how you do it.’  And I just tell them, ‘You just have to get up, lace up your shoes, and get out there. It’s not pretty at first, but it becomes a habit, and then you start enjoying it more and more.’ This is the same thing – you just have to decide to do it.”

Running as a metaphor for science outreach: “I always loved running… You could go in any direction, fast or slow as you wanted, fighting the wind if you felt like it… on the strength of your feet and the courage of your lungs.” ~Jesse Owens

She is so very right. For most of us, the hardest part is lacing up and heading out for that first run. It’s particularly true when the stakes are high, like when you have a new paper coming out and are hoping it gains traction outside your academic circles. In most cases, this requires a lot more than just hope; you’ve got work to do. Your task is to pique the curiosity of the right people, to make them want to learn more and share it with their audiences. You need to pitch your story.

Over the years, COMPASS has coached dozens of scientists through this process. On projects great and small, from one-on-one conversations to press releases, we’ve helped scientists connect with journalists. And while there’s no such thing as a secret recipe for guaranteed success, here is some tried and true guidance: [Read more…]

Story – A Medium For Change

Nancy in the classroom at the Huntsman Aquarium in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  Photo by Meghan Miner

At the Huntsman Marine Science Centre and Aquarium in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, two harbor seals gaze through the glass at 20 marine ecologists and me. This underwater room is a fitting setting for a three-day communications workshop for senior academics, post docs and grad students in the Canadian Healthy Oceans Network or CHONe. Their research focuses on the diversity of marine life in Canada’s three oceans – the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific – and ranges from the deepest ocean bottom vents to the intertidal zone and the atmosphere.

With me are Cheryl Kawaja and Lisa Johnson from CBC, and Hannah Hoag and John Rennie, two experienced freelancers. Journalists are professional storytellers and we are united in our efforts to tell the scientists one true thing: what people most want from them are stories. [Read more…]