December 30th, 2014
It’s been a busy year of speaking and working with a wide range of organizations. The narrative/storymaking skills I’m teaching these days — developed in part in our Connection Storymaker Workshop over the past decade — are relevant to almost any profession — from Deloitte accountants to Monsanto Safety Officers (with the National Safety Council). I work with far more than scientists. And as a result, I see patterns across different demographics. Some audiences are blindly affirming, some are blindly negating, and some are right in the middle.
I SPEAK ACROSS A BROAD SPECTRUM OF ORGANIZATIONS. These are the 21 talks and workshops I did this year. Folks in the business community (and Hollywood) are more likely to be affirming and visceral, sometimes to an uncritical degree. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists tend to be heavily cerebral and can be blindly negating — dismissing ideas out of hand because there aren’t sufficient data or enough studies, regardless of how interesting the idea might be. Public health, in my experience, seems to hit the best balance.
I started this year by speaking to what I affectionately came to call, “The Wall of Blind Negation.” It was the audience for my opening keynote address in January at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biologists. It’s the main organization I was a member of when I left science. I had expected an enthusiastic crowd who would be eager to hear what I had learned in the two decades since I left science. And to their credit, the people who took part in my workshop really were into it. But my big talk ended up being almost like a Monty Python skit with a series of questions that were all negation. By the end I wanted to ask, “How can you be so certain that what I’ve presented to you here is so wrong?”
This pattern stands out for me because I speak across such a broad range of audiences these days. At the other end of the spectrum from scientists is the business community where accuracy and precision are not such a high priority. That means they can afford to be more affirming, less critical and negating. They tend to grab new ideas and run with them. You can feel the greater appreciation of innovation and novelty in the business community. You can also watch really bad ideas take off uncritically. Especially in Hollywood, where uncritical thinking is taken to the hilt.
In the middle of this spectrum is the public health world. I think because they have the word “public” in their job description they tend to be more practical minded when it comes to communication. They know that their work is of zero value if they fail to communicate it widely. As a result, I’ve found they are willing to pay without grouching, listen more closely, argue less, negate less, and generally have a greater understanding of the importance of communication.
In the end I have a hard time saying who is the best group to work with. I do appreciate the “acid test” that scientists are trained to subject ideas to. It can be frustrating and painful, but it does drive you to thinking deeper and harder. But on the other hand, when it gets to the point of a “wall of blind negation,” things can get rather ridiculously unproductive.
Here’s to next year being even more interesting, challenging and fun.