Persuasion And Influence: Dirty Words In Science Communication?

Last week we shared insights from the National Academy of Sciences’ Sackler Colloquium on the Science of Science Communication. The premise of this gathering was: if we rely on evidence for our research, why do we rely on hunches to communicate it? With this in mind, the organizers assembled a stellar group of scientists who shared data about how people process information, which is all immediately useful in effective communication and engagement. While I shared my summary of take homes last week, I wanted to also share something else the organizers did brilliantly. By bringing in speakers from business, network thinking, and consumer choice theory, they pushed our thinking about science communication. People were equally as interested as they were uncomfortable.

Influence: The power of social networks

Northwestern University’s Noshir Contractor kicked it off, sharing that if we are to scale up science communication, we have to use social networks. Understanding social networks is a combination of understanding what you know, who you know, who they think you know, what they think you know, and what who you know knows….phew! According to Contractor, when trying to get ideas out there, who is actually more important than what. He reiterates what many anti-deficit model minds likely believe: it’s a myth that all we need to do is to communicate the facts. What really matters is who we’re communicating with. Opinion leaders really matter, they spread ideas. (For more on this concept, see Robert Cialdini’s six degrees of social influence.)

Deb Roy of MIT and Twitter’s Chief Media Scientist wows the Sackler audience with his powerful visuals. Photo by Liz Neeley, shared with a Creative Commons Attribution license

Social network concepts were amplified by eye-opening presentations about social media. A notable standout was Deb Roy, who is not only tenured at MIT but also serves as Chief Media Scientist at Twitter. Roy’s soundbites stuck with us – “media has moved from a solid phase to a liquid phase” and “Twitter is the social soundtrack for life”. (Have you joined the conversation?) He spent a hefty chunk of time describing a leading edge of social conversation: the power of TV + Twitter. While this felt a step removed from the Sackler audience of scientists (even with a NOVA shout out), his story of millions and millions of people having an online conversation about whether Rick should kill the Governor while watching the Walking Dead drove home the fact that millions and millions of people have online conversations together. A more real time, if smaller scale, example: thousands of people were streaming Sackler live from their homes and offices, while hundreds of us were having a conversation about it simultaneously.

Persuasion: What’s your return on investment?

Marketing and public relations experts Davis Masten and Peter Zandan casually sat in armchairs on the stage at Sackler, sharing relevant insights from the business sector. They were very clear that the scientific community is being out-maneuvered, and it’s only going to get worse. The business world spends over $1 trillion/year on communications including $9 billion/year on researching the effectiveness of messages. Science spends under $1 billion/year on both their communications and messaging.  While they sympathized that scientists are skeptical about business communications, they also championed that business can provide a useful framework for science communications. They have tried and true approaches to metrics, engagement (the latest trend in communication, which we agree with), and return on investment (ROI). They described business’ evolution from classic public relations advertising to really engaging with the consumer. Making it a two-way conversation…and then amplifying that engagement – spreading it.

Davis Masten (left) and Peter Zandan (right) casually and powerfully share insights about business communication. Photo by Liz Neeley, shared with a Creative Commons Attribution license

Masten and Zandan’s comments about “selling things” were grounded in Punam Keller’s earlier talk about enhanced active choices– which is another way of motivating and manipulating behavior. An expert in consumer choices, Keller suggested reframing how we ask people questions – it’s not “what do you want to drink?” (open ended), instead it’s “do you want water or coffee?” (specific, pre-determined choices). This effectively limits, directs, and steers people’s options.

So, are ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Influence’ dirty words? 

Some of the Sackler attendees seemed to think so, asserting that science is not something we are trying to sell. Both in the room and on the Twitter stream, there were mixed reactions to these talks. Some believed these modes of communication are inappropriate. Others applauded the inclusion of these ideas.

I was one of the people applauding. To be clear, I do not think we are trying to sell science, manipulate people’s minds, or use science inappropriately to influence political agendas. I applauded the speakers’ insights for two reasons: 1) They forced us to take stock of where the rest of the world is moving with respect to communications. Science does risk being left behind. We can play on the larger, fluid field of communications and engagement. And we can do it with our own rules – we needn’t share the same motivations as business or public relations to participate; 2) The underpinnings and tactics used in business and consumer choices can be relevant and useful in science communication, even if driven by completely different motivations. It doesn’t have to be about profit and sales, it can be about comprehension. It can be about insights, not spin.

There is enormous power in networks, even if you don’t use them for influence. Similarly, while ROI is a classic business tool, it doesn’t have to be used solely to determine profit margins. ROI is really about what you are trying to accomplish, what you have to invest to accomplish it, and measuring whether or not you are accomplishing it. Perhaps our larger science community needs to have an ROI focused conversation and consider what returns on investment we want from science communications. What are we trying to accomplish? What are we willing to invest to accomplish that? How will we know when we’re getting there? As I’ve said here before, if we don’t invest in science communications, we’re not maximizing our investment in science at all. We look forward to pushing our thinking, continuing the conversation, and finding ways that these techniques can serve our goals around science communication.}

About Brooke Smith

Brooke Smith is the former Executive Director of COMPASS. She spends a lot of time thinking about the friction - yet incredible need - for science to be closer to society. She is in awe, and appreciative, of the scientists that are paving the way by getting out there and sharing their science, knowledge and insights with the wider world. It motivates her to ensure COMPASS continues to thrive, to support scientists to find their voice, and to join the most relevant conversations.


  1. Barbara Kline Pope says:

    This is an excellent piece, Brooke. Thank you so much for sharing your insights!

    • Brooke Smith says:

      Thanks Barbara. And thanks to you and the Academies for convening a great space to learn, discuss and push our thinking.

  2. Michelle Paulsen says:

    I have enjoyed engaging in many variations of this conversation, and I have been persuaded. My initial reaction, when I began studying science communication, was one of skepticism. Science should not be persuasive, I thought, it should be a factual reporting of information. But I was wrong. Persuasion is everywhere, and scientists can benefit from learning more about it. The difference, I realized, was separating a persuasive argument from a manipulative one. The latter does not belong in science.

    • Brooke Smith says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Michelle. I agree completely. Assuming these tools are being used exclusively for manipulation is narrow minded — there is much utility in thinking about how they apply to the goals we have as science communicators. I too am really enjoying engaging in this conversation with you and so many others.

  3. Steve Gibb says:

    I too enjoyed the presentations at the NAS but couldn’t get over the feeling in the room, a sort of low morale, around the perceived failure of scientists and agencies to persuade the public that the threats posed by climate change are serious and the resulting inaction. Do you agree? If so, do you see this as part of the specifics around this science policy situation related to how the climate issue is playing out, or part of a broader awakening/sadness that the corporate sector, which is dug in heavily on preserving fossil fuels, may often be more powerful than the government now in shaping the public’s ability to respond to crises?

Speak Your Mind