Thursday, August 13, 2009

10 Rules for Making Your Case

Based on our ongoing discussion about whether or not science and politics mix, it seems like many readers think that there are ways in which scientists can engage in policy - if not politics.

To help those of you who aren't trained communicators on your path to engaging with the public and policymakers, here are ten rules adapted* from a December 2000 article from The Washington Lawyer. John Greenya's piece, "Make Your Case: Lessons from Journalists" may be dated, but his advice is not.

Rule 1: Get your side in the story.
If you aren't telling your story - the way you want it told - chances are no one will hear it.

Rule 2: Discard preconceptions.
Don't assume anything. Past experience can provide helpful guidance, but every crowd and every elected official is slightly different, so enter each situation with an open mind.

Rule 3: Honesty is always the best policy.
Explain what you know as simply as possible and without exaggeration. If you get a question and don't know the answer, just admit you aren't sure and promise to follow-up.

Rule 4: Get a sense of whom you are dealing with.
Know your audience: middle schoolers and parents of middle schoolers see things very differently.

Rule 5: Define the rules of engagement.
If questions get you off-track, ask the audience to hold them to the end. If you want to discuss a certain topic at a meeting, start the conversation with, "We're here today to discuss...". Be assertive and stay within whatever boundaries you design.

Rule 6: Provide easy-to-access information.
Bring materials with you to in-person meetings and keep your website up-to-date for those who are looking for details.

Rule 7: Organize media briefings.
Invite local journalists to come and take a tour of your lab. Have the community come to a demonstration. You don't need to have a press conference to get your news out there - everything from high school papers to Twitter posts to radio spots will get your message out there.

Rule 8: Ask to have your quotes verified.
If you aren't sure whether something you said was understood, ask someone to explain it back to you (preferably not during important meetings). If someone makes you a promise or says something quotable, be courteous and send them a copy before sharing it with others.

Rule 9: Be sensitive to deadline pressures.
Know when your schedule will be busy and avoid planning major communication at those times if possible. It will save you from feeling frazzled if something doesn't go to plan.

Rule 10: Be clear and concise.
No description necessary.

Those are ten easy rules to help keep you on track when you're communicating about research (or anything, really). You know what to do--all you have to do is get out and do it.

*The article was written specifically for lawyers on how to present their case to the media, and here we're using the rules with slightly different intentions.

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