Friday, May 27, 2016

The weekend read

This week, communicators, did you bloom where you were planted, or wilt? Brighten up: it's time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you. Lettuce all get smarter by Monday, starting now:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Hiroshi Matsumara)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

For comms pros: The case for publicizing scientific retractions

In my careers as journalist and then communications pro, one of the best pieces of advice I've ever shared with executives and public officials is, "When you make an error, whatever it may be, make it public. Apologize. And then it will be behind you." The reverse also is true: Avoid or hide the error, and fail to address it in a forthright manner, and it's very likely to come back to haunt you again and again.

Normally, we think of this advice as pertaining to politicians confronted with some long-ago transgression. But I'm wondering why science communicators don't apply it more often when research is retracted from a scientific journal?

I can hear you shuddering (or maybe that's your marketing team) and thinking: Why publicize retractions? Shouldn't we focus on kudos, awards, and positive forward steps? Sure, you should. But when a forward step takes you two steps back in reputation, this open approach can build your credibility--the very thing you are trying to protect.

In this 2011 interview, Retraction Watch editors Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus advocate for transparency in your publicity decisions around retracted research. Asked what journals can do better to educate authors, reviewers and editors, they said:
This is a pet peeve of ours. Many retraction notices are opaque, buried, or both. We’ve called for journals to publicize retractions better: Any journal that press releases studies should press release retractions. Science does that, and Nature at least press releases any retraction of a paper that it had originally press released. Then there’s PNAS, which won’t press release any retractions. We’re not sure how that squares with scientific transparency. It could also do better at publicizing retraction processes and policies. Another suggestion: Journals ought to put retraction notices (and even corrections) outside their subscription firewalls. If not, if you don’t subscribe, you can’t read the notices. Just another step toward transparency.
PNAS--the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences--began issuing corrections and retractions in their press releases in 2015.

Transparency isn't the only goal here. As with politicians, publicizing the error is both responsible and removes--rather than emphasizes--the sting of the error. After all, if you are able to non-anxiously make your mistakes public, we may trust you more, not less. There's less room for shame if you are doing the disclosing.

But journals shouldn't bear the burden alone. The institutions that are home to the retracted research also could display the same transparency by making public their errors. Here's a recent example from the University of Maryland, widely criticized for issuing a press release for a non-peer reviewed, industry-sponsored study about the product of the sponsoring industry. Aside from wishing as much thought had gone into the study and press release as in this fine response, the level of communication of error here is appropriate--and restorative to reputation. Here, there's redemption in company. The more of you doing this, the less odd it will seem.

There's another bonus here, dear to the hearts of science communicators: You'll be doing a better job making clear how science actually works. We bemoan all the time the tendency of the media to breathlessly report new research findings--but in failing to publicize retractions, we toss away the antidote to that. In Failure is moving science forward, science writer Christie Aschwanden explains:
Years ago, someone asked John Maddox how much of what his prestigious science journal Nature printed was wrong. “All of it,” the renowned editor quickly replied. “That’s what science is about — new knowledge constantly arriving to correct the old.” Maddox wasn’t implying that science was bunk; he was saying that it’s only as good as the current available evidence, and as more data pours in, it’s inevitable that our answers change.
What are some tactics comms pros can use if you decide to change your policy and publish your institution's research errors?
  1. Coordinate with the publishing journal, if relevant, and link to its public information on the retraction.
  2. Make it routine, as good journals do, to publish short notices about retractions. In this way, you are signaling a) that this happens all over, and b) this particular retraction is not necessarily special. Make sure your researchers understand this approach and work to get their support.
  3. Share context on how the scientific method and reproducibility work, so the retractions are viewed with that information.
  4. Keep the information public and outside any firewalls your institution maintains. Otherwise, you lose your transparency credits.
  5. If the retracted research got a press release, its retraction should have one, too--with linking to the original release for clarity. Make sure it is issued to reporters who received the first release. If you publish a press or public information policy, mention this practice in it.
And if you think you don't have the bandwidth for this, at least one college has been issuing releases when a researcher is invited to review a journal article in pre-publication. If you are that desperate for the publicity, let me suggest that publishing your retractions is both better public service and more nutritional content, word for word, than that option.

(Creative Commons licensed cartoon by Bud Petal)

Friday, May 20, 2016

The weekend read

Feel like you're gonna swing from the chandelier? That's one way to celebrate that it's Friday--time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you.  Get smarter by Monday, brightly lit:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Karen Ybanez)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

My hands-free universe, pushing me past smartphone juggling

I love my smartphone, don't get me wrong. But I've been hoping that bright minds were working on ways to solve two problems: Decoupling the phone from all the tasks I need to do, so there's less risk to me if the phone is disabled, and finding a way to avoid my having to juggle the phone along with everything else I need my hands to manage. This trend has been creeping in slowly until this year, when the frontier really opened up. And I'm more excited about this seemingly simple change than many other advances. You may talk about them as wearables, like my Ringly, or the Internet of Things. I call it my hands-free universe, and it goes beyond having turn-by-turn directions read to me while I drive.

Take the Amazon Echo, a hub that plays music, carries out commands, answers questions, and more...all from voice commands. The Amazon Echo turns out to be so indispensible, I'm planning to buy another one. The genius here was releasing the code so many developers could create "skills" for the Echo, from banking and shopping to home-device controls and reading me my audiobooks. Using IFTTT to create trigger commands, I can even fashion my own set of directions for the device, an advantage that other "smart" devices should take to heart. That lets me benefit from others' creativity. The Echo keeps gaining functionality without my having to do anything...the best hands-free function of all. Many say it's the device that the Apple Watch should have been, in many ways.

As a public speaking coach, I'm also excited about the Kindle Oasis, Amazon's latest tablet. It's not entirely hands-free, but was designed so you can advance pages with one hand. That's a serious advantage for speakers and panel moderators who want to use it for their notes, a modern version of index cards, but easier to manipulate. It means speakers and moderators can come out from behind the lectern, holding the Kindle Oasis with no need to rest it on a surface. As with previous Kindles, you can email your documents to the device and read them just as you would an ebook. And with the same type-size-increase functions as previous Kindles, you can adjust what you're reading in real time. It's also thinner and lighter to hold, another advantage.

These are just two options for hands-free work and living. But I've found they have reintroduced a level of ease that I found missing in the mashup of many devices I own. I'm glad to see this transition coming about.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The weekend read

This week, I've been based in Heidelberg, Germany, for speaker workshops and coaching for SAP. No matter what time zone you're in, it's time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you.  Get smarter by Monday, with these postcards:
Travel further: Buy my ebook, The Eloquent Woman's Guide to Moderating Panels; tell your colleagues to put this blog in their feeds; sign up for my free monthly newsletter, or let me know how we can work together in 2016 with an email to eloquentwoman at
(Creative Commons licensed photo of Heidelberg by Matthias Harber)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

From the vault: You are not your audience

(Editor's note: This post, updated from the original 2014 post, is still and always relevant. Just a reminder...) When I'm working with clients to help them figure out what they want to say and how to say it--be it in a speech, a tweet, a report--the most common message-crafting mistakes they make involve the audience. Or should I say they don't involve the audience?

That's because mistake number one typically involves forgetting the audience entirely. As one of my scientist-trainees said, "I had no idea that I should take into account what the audience knows or wants to hear instead of what I want to say." I'd rather you took the approach of novelist Ursula K. LeGuin, who told an audience of graduating seniors, "I have no right to speak to you. What I have is the responsibility you have given me to speak to you."

Mistake number two, for speakers and communicators who do think about the audience: Confusing the audience with yourself. "I am, therefore the audience thinks like me" might sum up this feeling. Remember that when you're wielding your opinions and views, it's common to assume that they are widely shared--but that's an assumption that can trip you up later.

The most recent example comes courtesy of a Pew study that shows that most Americans under 30 don't know what "Roe v. Wade" was about--even though both sides of the abortion debate have long made it their shorthand for the 40-year-old abortion law. So every time that term is used, it loses people in that age group who are part of the intended audience. Even among Americans over 30, just over 60 percent knew what the term meant, not a ringing endorsement. I've seen the same thing happen with scientists who assume the public hates them or politicians who assume the opposite (neither of which is typically supported by data).

When communicators are prepping an expert or spokesperson, or getting in fights over particular favorite words and phrases, you often hear this expressed as "But I understood what that meant" or "But I think that sounds effective." Communicators make this mistake themselves, usually when they groan about using repetition of a message or tactics that help your messages stick with audiences. "I'm so tired of hearing this again," they'll say.

But you're not the audience, friends. And when we're working on a message, I don't want only you. I want your audience, in order for real communication to take place.

One reason I think spokesfolk make this mistake is that it's easier to go with what you want to say than to parse out who is in your audience. That's particularly true in the age of "the people formerly known as the audience," in which they, too, are communicators. For some experts, the idea that everyone may not accept or understand their views is anathema. To me, those are signs that you should be thinking more precisely about your targets and how they relate to your subject matter.

Put another way, the audience is your secret sauce when crafting a message. I know, you think the emphasis there is on "secret," and it's true that you won't be able to know everything about the audience you aim to reach. But the more you consider your audience, the better and more thoughtful your communications will be. Can you come up with a few profiles of the people you're trying to reach? Can you describe them in demographic terms? Can you think like a calendar to use the age of your audience as a guide to what they know, as in the Roe example above? Do you know anything about their preferences in terms of receiving and using information? Do you know their likely level of knowledge about your topic? Communicators have a critical role to play here by filling in the blanks for spokespeople and experts on their audiences. Starting to develop a message without your audience means they won't be with you when you need them most.

Friday, May 06, 2016

The weekend read

If your week could be a pair of jeans, communicators, what kind would it be? Bell bottom blues? Then it's time to check out my finds of the week, shared via @dontgetcaught on Twitter and curated here just for you.  Patch up the jeans that were your week right here, and get smarter by Monday:
(Creative Commons licensed photo by Dewayne Neeley)

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Will social media deliver a pot roast? A blogger's Web 3.0 casserole

In this Guardian article about a woman moving in while her mother recuperated from surgery, she marveled at her mother's elderly friends who dropped by day after day with a covered dish and inquiries after her mother's condition. She said, “The thing I couldn’t help thinking was, who would do this for me when I’m old? I’d be getting a few text messages saying hope you’re better soon … social media is never going to deliver a pot roast.”

Except when it does. And that social media pot roast--what I like to call the Web 3.0 casserole--comes not in a covered dish, but in a covered base. Not a roast, but a guest post.

Here's what I mean: Back in 2010, Kate Peters, a speaker and voice coach I'd come to know via Twitter and her blogs, signaled that she was going through a medical crisis in her family. It happened that I had just written a blog post about storytelling and the voice, so I emailed and offered it to her. We called it a "Web 2.0 casserole," my effort to cover the base of regular posts for her.

Then in 2012 another speaker coach, Claire Duffy in Australia, wrote to me privately to ask for help in how to coach her dying friend who'd been asked to give speeches to raise money for her disease. She was willing for me to share that question with the readers of The Eloquent Woman, my blog on public speaking. So I put out a call for help. Several fellow coaches came forward, each with a different example of a speech by someone dying and words of advice; I summarized them all here after sharing them with Claire. Then, after her friend's death, Claire wrote for the blog to share her friend's speech and more about that experience.

More recently, after I blogged about my older sister's death last year, Kate was quick to offer a guest post for my blog--and made it easy by suggesting a specific speech for The Eloquent Woman's Famous Speech Friday series, Toni Morrison's 2011 commencement address at Rutgers University. Her post could not have come at a better time, and really made it possible for me to stay focused on family. This time we decided it needed an upgrade to "Web 3.0 casserole."

In times of less stress, I also have dozens of readers for my three blogs who forward clips, videos, articles, ideas, and questions that become the basis for blog posts, as well as those who offer everything from translations to guest posts. These, too, are a little bit of pot roast delivered to my door, and I welcome them.

While you don't want to plan to have a crisis that requires a Web 3.0 casserole, you can be building a blogging network that yields such a thing when you need it most. Here's how to cultivate that:

  • Cultivate, don't compete with, others who blog in your field of expertise: From time to time, observers of my social media presence will say, "What's in it for you to have other speaker coaches or social media strategists following you? They're just keeping up on the competition." I see it differently. Twitter and the blogs and Facebook are like attending thousands of daily specialty conferences with like-minded colleagues. Not everyone responds in this way, but many of us network, help each other out, and can call on one another as needed. Casting a wide and varied net for your social networks really pays off.
  • Offer a casserole post to get things started: If you *have* been following another colleague's or organization's blog and notice there are gaps in coverage or a crisis has been announced, offer a guest post freely. Don't make it too self-promotional. Do all the work involved, from links to pictures. And don't do it for the IOU, but that's generally what it will yield.
  • Formalize the backup system: Once or twice a year, send out an email to blogs and organizations in your topic area...or start within your company or organization, asking other departments to help. Ask for contributory posts, and offer the same. Not only will you have a small queue of posts that can serve in times of crisis, you'll be building up that network on which you can rely in future.
  • Keep a few casserole ingredients on hand: Which posts of yours, already published, would be suitable if reprinted on another blog? Or, do you have time to write a few posts and keep them to one side, to be offered as needed? A little advance prep makes it easier for you to be generous when the time comes. 
  • Take the long view: If you've read this post closely, you may have noticed that I got much more than a one-off guest post from each of these encounters--Claire's request, for example, wound up being a small series as we updated readers on what happened. And this post is itself a by-product of all these social media casseroles. Content breeds more content, if you're thoughtful about it.
We talk a lot about connection and distancing in social media, and we think about (but don't always offer) guest posting. But what better use for a guest post? This practice brings you closer, virtually and otherwise, with far-flung colleagues. It makes for a delicious casserole!

(Creative Commons licensed photo by H is for Home)

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