Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Message Map for Skeptics - Part One

Last weekend, I attended the SkeptiCAL conference in Berekely, California.  This was my first experience at a formal skeptical meeting, and it was excellent. I want to offer kudos to Shane Trimmer, Eugenie Scott and the other organizers - the presentations were entertaining and timely, and the networking opportunities with other skeptics were priceless.

One of the breakout sessions was titled “5 Myths About Skeptics,” and, arriving a bit late, I never did learn what those myths were. Instead, I walked into a spirited discussion among the thirty to forty people in the room about the challenges that skeptics face in getting their message out.  I won’t go through the whole familiar list, but speakers touched on everything from what we call ourselves to media indifference to rifts between subgroups of skeptics to the difficulties presented by ignorant or pandering politicians.

What struck me as I listened is that we really have a crying need to address messaging in the skeptical community.  We need to develop a message platform that frames our key messages and provides a bridge to communicating better within the skeptical community and with the rest of the world.

Unlike many skeptics I do not have a background in science.  I work in  marketing and public relations, and what I’m suggesting is normal practice in my world. The idea is to develop a set of key messages that positively state what your company or program or, in our case, movement is all about. And those become the core set of messages that your spokespeople go to whenever possible.

Does it work? Well, think about people on the other side of issues that are important to us, particularly politicians. Look at this statement from Senator Inhofe of Oklahoma, which constitutes the first paragraph of a speech he gave on global warming:

As I said on the Senate floor on July 28, 2003, "much of the debate over global warming is predicated on fear, rather than science." I called the threat of catastrophic global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," a statement that, to put it mildly, was not viewed kindly by environmental extremists and their elitist organizations.

I guarantee you that the good Senator has a focus group-tested set of talking points on this subject that tells him exactly what buzzwords will generate the kind of response he wants from his listeners:  “...predicated on fear... “...greatest hoax...” “...environmental extremists and their elitist organizations...”  These are the kinds of emotion-laden phrases that get to people. They have nothing to do with the science of global warming, but they are crafted and calculated to strike a specific chord with the people who hear them. The words lead to emotional responses, which leads to votes, which leads to the Senator maintaining his nice position in the US Senate.

This is common practice in politics of course, and the term “talking points” often has a negative connotation as a result. Talking points are seen as craven efforts to curry voter favor, not honest efforts to communicate.

But they don’t have to be.

Take a look at Apple’s Steve Jobs, a master of messaging.  Any time Apple introduces a new milestone product, Steve Jobs takes the stage and delivers a master course in messaging.  When introducing the MacBook Air, the phrase “the world’s thinnest notebook” was repeated over and over again and almost every newspaper article about the product parroted that phrase. With the iPhone it was “Apple Reinvents the phone.”  With the iPod it was “one thousand songs in your pocket.”  None of these phrases attempts to get into the specifics of functions and apps and features, but each neatly summarizes what the product is and makes it instantly understandable to consumers. And, more importantly, Jobs and Apple never missed an opportunity to utilize that specific phrase when talking about the product.

Because we have science on our side, we in the skeptical community often tend to believe that we will ultimately prevail in the court of public opinion. But the reality is that those who don’t give a shit about the science, and who have a political, religious, economic or power-based reason for purveying their point of view are much more organized and disciplined about their messaging than we are.

Unless we manage to tackle our own messaging with a bit of discipline, we will always lag behind those that do.  

For part two of this discussion, which includes my thoughts on how we might tackle the issue of creating a messaging platform, click here.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the first major issue is the word skeptic. The other side has taken that word and completely turned it around to mean some truth denying science junky. People like Dr. Oz use that word against us and say why are you skeptical of this, what more do you need in order to change your close mind. Well, I would need evidence proving that there is something there. If there was a dead body of big foot that was tested in a lab and came back as big foot, then I would gladly change my mind and go hunting myself. But blurry photos that turn out to be hoaxes, don't cut it.
    The most annoying thing is that the other side sees us as people who don't want this to work, that we are holding it back. Acupuncture is one of these things. Do you not think that I would love acupuncture to work? I would love a cheap, easy way to cure cancer, aches and pains, and everything else they claim. I would be first in line if they proved that it worked with a conclusive double blind study, but the evidence does not show this.
    We need to show people how we think and that we aren't closed minded but guided by evidence. I love when you said people don't give a shit about science, because its true. Most people only have working knowledge of high school chemistry if that!! And science is hard and takes years of training to think the way that science requires you to think. It disgusts me that when evolution comes to mind that the famous picture of an ape to a man is what most people think of. That is only one part of that theory, but that is what the other side has put into the brains of the masses and made evolution and fear the same thing. Tough battle to fight and win.