Finding Your Voice

While not everyone may be interested in your science at first, many people are interested in scientists, as your work seems…mysterious. What do you actually do? Why are you so devoted to it? They want to know what makes you tick. Even if your research can seem obscure, they are often eager to discover a new perspective on the world through your eyes.

I remind scientists (and myself too) that when talking about your work, it’s often best to tell your story as if you were talking to friends who appreciate you and are hanging on your every word. Let your audience meet the real you.  You’ll see their eyes light up and their attention engage.

For many scientists this is liberating. I have had scientists rush up to me after a talk and say what a relief to hear it’s not only okay, but essential for them to be themselves.  All too often, scientists are trained to downplay, or even cloak their passion for their work, for fear of appearing to erode the scientific rigor of their science or their credibility as a researcher. Yet after they experiment a little with revealing their enthusiasm, they are convinced.

Jim Barry, a benthic ecologist from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, recounted at a reception at The Ocean in a High-CO2 World Symposium that followed a COMPASS communication workshop, “I was surprised by how important personality is. Be human.” Jim is a funny, charming guy. But when he spoke at the front of the room, he would put on his “science face”, become serious, and hide his sense of humor.  It was an aha! moment when he realized he could entertain people while talking about his science, just as he did when he talked about other things. Another young scientist, Heike Link  wrote me after a workshop to say “all of a sudden people really listen to me when I answer their questions about my work.” The difference? She told them why she cared about it.

But don’t try to be funny if you aren’t funny, or flamboyant if you are not. The important thing is to be your authentic self.

There are many ways to find your voice. It can be fun – especially with the feedback and support of others.

A few weeks ago, at a science synthesis and advanced communication workshop I co-facilitated in Vancouver, British Columbia, I encouraged a group of academic scientists to experiment with different ways of expressing their personality as well as their knowledge. They were given options that included “How to be yourself on camera,” and “Twitter — a discipline in conveying your content and voice in 140 characters”. But most of the scientists chose to focus on creating op-ed articles in a session titled “Writing Opinions: Your Informed Argument”.

I asked two of the journalists there, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post and Nicola Jones, a freelancer who often writes for Nature, to co-lead this session. Juliet talked about writing op-eds for the Washington Post or other mainstream media, while Nicola focused on Comments for Nature, where she was previously an editor. While the Washington Post and Nature obviously target different audiences, their advice was strikingly similar.

Juliet, who covers the White House and is known for her speed, tenacity, and nose for news, started by saying “a successful opinion piece enters the blood stream of what is happening in the world.” Op-eds must be timely and relevant.  Or as Juliet says, “If a news event occurs that you can tie into your topic, run – don’t walk – to your laptop.”

Op-eds can have ripple effects – for both you and society.  They can make a powerful point about an important issue and prompt people to reexamine their views or even to adopt yours. Your op-ed establishes you as an expert and identifies you as someone who can be called upon to speak to the issue by the media and policymakers.

Nicola recommended a simple format for writing an opinion piece like a Comment for Nature as follows:

“This is what’s wrong with the world and how to fix it”

  • Start with your main opinion, and maybe a striking anecdote
  • Cover the interesting, critical background
  • Hit your core supporting arguments, explaining why they’re important now
  • Counter the counter-arguments – demolish them succinctly
  • Provide constructive advice on how to fix the problem

The point about mustering a well-reasoned argument is an important one for scientists, since what you bring to the discussion is well-supported evidence.  Science writer and editor John Rennie advises, “Back up your opinion with substance. That will give your opinion a spine.”

Here are a few practical considerations:

  • Read a paper’s editorial page before submitting to get an idea of what they publish. Most outlets publish instructions for submissions.
  • Submit your opinion piece to one outlet at a time. The New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times can be tough because the competition is fierce. You will have better luck starting with your local paper, many of whom are eager to have informed voices from the region.
  • Once published, you may have repeated opportunities to voice your views.  I know scientists who have used this strategy to gain local prominence and then scale up. Some online outlets like the Huffington Post have a considerable appetite for opinion pieces by scientists and are well read.
  • When submitting your op-ed by email, send it in the body rather than as an attachment.  Editors often won’t open attachments.
  • Persistence pays off.  If you don’t get accepted on the first round, keep trying. You’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

At our Vancouver workshop, the scientists completed a first draft op-ed incorporating each other’s feedback. They departed with new resolve to have their voices heard.

One of the op-eds by international wolf expert Paul Paquet has already been published: In proposal to strip gray wolves’ protection, agency ignored the science. In his op-ed, Paquet demonstrates deep knowledge and respect for wolves and their place in ecosystems, and his resolve to fight for their future.  That’s Paul.

I am eagerly awaiting more scientists to join the chorus– each with your distinct expertise —  and voice.

About Nancy Baron

COMPASS Science Outreach Director Nancy Baron coaches environmental scientists in communications and leadership, and is a co-lead for the Wilburforce Fellowship in Conservation Science. Her book, Escape from the Ivory Tower: A Guide to Making Your Science Matter is based on over a decade of experience working with leading scientists around the world. Find Nancy on Twitter at @Nancy_Baron

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