It’s an awful starting point when you are trying on one hand to convince researchers to talk to the media and then telling everyone in earshot, including the scientists you want to get in front of the media, that they are bad communicators.
But when communications professionals unintentionally undermine the confidence of scientists by saying they are bad communicators, who are they really comparing scientists to?
But compare them to members of the general public or other professions and scientists start to look pretty damn good.
The scientists I work with are the best novice communicators I have ever encountered. A few of the more senior researchers in the Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science where I work could easily hold their own communications workshops.
In my experience when it comes to learning to be good communicators they generally outshine CEOs of major international companies, heads of advocacy groups, economists (don’t you dare tell me you understand half of what the money markets people are nattering about), heads of government organisations - in fact just about anyone whose job is not as a professional media person.
And it makes sense that scientists are good communicators. From the moment they graduate they are presenting to colleagues, sticking up for their research against peers, writing for scientific journals, putting together grants and even advising governments. A big part of their day-to-day job is communicating and being put on the spot.
Every day in their so-called “ivory towers” they are communicating ideas to each other in a multitude of forms.
The issues scientists have with communicating to the public are often translation issues for audiences without a scientific background, narrowing the focus to just a few ideas and talking about margins of error in a world that likes black and white precision.
But these skills are all easily taught.
What we overlook is that many of our scientists are already comfortable talking to large audiences. They are used to setting out ideas in sequences that make sense. A very high number of them can write and it is relatively simple for communications professionals to edit and tighten their work. Best of all most have a strong work ethic, so they will work diligently with you to become better communicators.
I have had the great pleasure to develop a number of scientific spokespeople. In a matter of months I became confident enough to let them take on interviews with only the briefest of chats, to write opinion pieces off their own bat and to even let them develop their own trusted relationships with journalists.
My role quickly evolved from teacher to adviser to cheerleader. I have never seen a group of people who, when they are focused on communications, develop the basic skills so rapidly.
Too often as communicators we fall into the trap of accepting the idea that scientists are bad communicators when in fact this may not be the case at all. Perhaps it is time for professional communicators to engage the scientific method and examine the evidence of this supposition.
Undoubtedly we will find some examples of bad communicators, as you would in any field, but the evidence of my own experience is that scientists already have many key communication assets. It requires only a little work to make them compelling media performers.
So, before we damn scientists as poor communicators, perhaps we should look at what they bring to the table. In reality, maybe it's professional media communicators that need to reassess whether they are communicating well.
Surely we should be trying build the confidence of scientists to be the great media performers we desire instead of tearing them down before they have even stepped up for their first interview.