October 11th, 2010
Dr. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education for over two decades, is a role model when it comes to being a spokesperson for a cause — in her case, defending the teaching of evolution.
ADVENTURES OF A VETERAN COMMUNICATOR
The dream of all movie directors is to work with veteran actors. It’s like driving a race car versus an old jalopy. You can direct a good actor with razor precision, where amateurs are all over the map.
I get this treat of working with veteran actors whenever I’m fortunate enough to do something with the comic actors from the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater (like the three in our lionfish Public Service Announcement we’ll be releasing next week — stay tuned!). They know their blocking, know their characters, know their eyelines, know how to play to the camera … pretty much everything. You ask them to sit at the table, then look in the viewfinder of the camera and see they have already automatically positioned themselves just right. It’s amazing. You give them a tiny direction — “Need you a little more relaxed” — and you get a whole change in body language, expression, and even dialogue that makes you go, “Whoa, awesome.” It makes the entire process soooo much smoother, easier, and more enjoyable. In fact, as we always noted in film school, great actors can make totally incompetent directors look skilled.
In a similar manner, such was the experience of working with a true professional last week as I conducted an interview with Dr. Eugenie Scott, Director of the National Center for Science Education. I’ll be posting a roughly 7 minute video of her this Thursday on the Benshi in which I quiz her about whether the climate science community might benefit from the presence of an organization similar to the NCSE. Interviewing her was an experience in working with a professional spokesperson.
Because of my book, I get asked a lot for simple pieces of advice on how to communicate better. My one simple piece of advice is DO IT A LOT. And that’s my advice for everything in life, from surfing to salsa dancing to filmmaking. The more you do it, the more fluent you become. And Malcolm Gladwell (of course, who else) wrote an excellent book on this titled, “Outliers.”
There’s no substitute for experience. It makes the world a better place for everyone.
SCIENTISTS DON’T KNOW HOW TO LISTEN
In the case of Genie Scott, she was composed, focused, sitting still for the camera (some people are so nervous they move all over the place), and incredibly good at “taking direction.” What that last bit means is she would start an answer by saying, “They are always talking about …” I would cut her off saying, “Who?” She would automatically stop, reset, start again, and say, “The creationists are always talking about …” This must have happened twenty times. She never scoffed or groaned, just instantly did her best to hear what I was asking and work in that direction.
It made me think of veteran actor Tommy Lee Jones — I saw an interview with him where he was talking about his acting technique. He said what he does is very simple. He just listens to the best of his ability. He listens to every single word of what the director says he or she wants him to do, then does his very best to do that. That was what they tried to drill into our heads in the two year Meisner acting program I took — just listen, listen, listen. And the same in all improv acting classes I’ve ever had.
Which makes me think of Peter Kareiva’s review of my book and Cory Dean’s book in Science back in January where he said, “The failure of scientists as communicators is that they don’t know how to listen.” Painfully true.
Genie has a Ph.D., but from having spent many years interfacing with the public, she has clearly overcome this basic “don’t be such a scientist” failing.
By the end of our interview I asked her whether there might exist videotape of her doing an interview 25 years ago when she was just starting. It would be fascinating to compare such an interview with this current one. I would bet she was completely different — moving all around, filled with nervous energy, eyes wandering everywhere, answers rambling in various directions.
Today she is indeed a consummate professional. She’s long since lost count of the hundreds of talks and interviews she’s given over the past three decades. But more importantly, she has a countenance and composure that radiates confidence and knowledge. THAT is what you want in the spokesperson for your organization.
Everybody wants the quick fix — the one gimmick that they think will make them some sort of master communicator. They want me to say, “Yeah, you just need to start every sentence with the words, “Most people agree …” and then everything you say will sound perfect.”
Sorry. Ain’t gonna happen. As I try to suggest in my book, acting and communicating are very similar processes. Just look at the early performances of great actors. They mostly suck. It takes a looong time to get good at this stuff. But it’s worth it. Just look at the level of respect Genie Scott commands today. That’s the payoff.