I love words and growing up I loved learning and using new words – strange and different words that most people didn’t know and certainly didn’t use. It helped that I had four older brothers all attending college while I was still in grammar and middle school. Using big words – 50 cent words as neighbors would call them – impressed and made me look smart. But when honing my skills as a journalist I realized that if the goal was reaching and affecting people, big words were more often a barrier than a conduit (especially in broadcast news).
By and large, most scientists are still very much in love with the words of their profession. And why shouldn’t they be? They spent a lot of time, money and energy learning those words – the ones that precisely express what they are trying to say. Unfortunately, the rest of the public have no idea what they’re saying and therein lies the rub.
College president Barry Glassner recently wrote in USA Today that while the public does have a science literacy problem, scientists need to be more “publicly literate.” He ticks off a list of things that science has failed to communicate very well. First on that list is global warming. Sharon Begley has also written about this in Newsweek and sums it up in one declarative sentence, “scientists are lousy communicators.”
After having spent a couple of decades wrangling soundbites from some of the world’s most distinguished scientists, I now spend much of my time helping scientists speak more simply before they get in front of an audience.
Dr. Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, didn’t need much help from me when I first interviewed him for CNN more than 15 years ago and he didn’t need much help from me when I helped him put together this recent video on the NIH’s Strategic Plan on Obesity.
He uses common phrases such as “short list” and “wagging fingers at people.” He uses a different intonation when he paraphrases the critics who say, “well, you know, it’s just because people eat too much and don’t get enough exercise.” He’s not afraid to admit that clinical trial results have to be tested in the “real world” and to use every day phrases such as “heart attacks” rather than the jargon “cardiac events.” I like him because he describes things as “truly frightening!”
Having Dr. Collins at the head of NIH shows scientists everywhere the value of learning how to communication effectively – using less big words that will ultimately promote, not compromise, good science to the public.