Distill the message of agriculture

Farm Forum

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about a topic in agriculture and the person’s eyes glaze over? And you know you have good information, but the person is just not getting it?

At last week’s Livestock BioTech conference in Sioux Falls, one of the speakers helped clarify how our message sometimes gets lost in the telling. Help in distilling the message of agriculture came from Christie Nicholson from the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.

If you’ve seen the old TV show, M*A*S*H, the character Hawkeye, is very verbal. Nicholson related that in real life Alan Alda knew he wanted to be an actor, and he always wanted to be a scientist. Once Alda completed the M*A*S*H series, he was asked to narrate the Scientific Frontiers program for public broadcasting. He agreed to it, but he didn’t just want to narrate, he wanted to be part of it and be able to wring the story out of scientists. He got his wish and was able to sit down with these smart people to have a casual conversation with them. The subjects warmed up to him and became engaged with him despite the camera rolling.

From that involvement, he set up his learning center to encourage others to sort through the important details to simply the message for non-scientists. He encourages people to start with a question, keep firing the questions, and address the information.

Nicholson encouraged the group to tell ag’s story in ways that people can easily relate. As an example, she asked for baseball enthusiasts in the audience. And then she asked for someone who knew little or nothing about baseball. Putting up a sports story from a newspaper on a big screen, she asked the first group to explain the passage to the second person, realizing that the person knew nothing about the game. It came down to having to explain innings, strikes, walks and bottom of the ninth. The first group got caught up in their explanations and soon fumbled with what they were assuming the person knew and what needed to be described.

Nicholson said that has been part of the frustration experienced by scientists in agriculture in telling their story to multiple audiences.

Explaining sports is a lot like explaining science, according to Nicholson. When one participant said that her daddy was a minor league ball player, the rest of us could envision him on the field. That provided a common ground. I understood when Nicholson said too many times we get mired in the details. It can be easy to get lost in the message we’re trying to get across. It’s imperative to instill emotion in your audience to make them remember the message.

She went on to ask why people should care about food being in short supply. She displayed a scientific summary, and again the group was challenged to read a passage and distill it. While some got hung up on using the term cloned animal, others focused on improving the health and welfare of food animals. One offered the definition of a cloned animal as a twin born at a later time. Baggage came with the word cloning.

Nicholson noted that sometimes you have to get into the weeds to find your way out.

It came down to explaining that cloning speeds up the process to get more cattle faster to feed a world that needs more food. There isn’t any more land, so technology is necessary to help with this process.

People need assurances that cloned cattle are not aberrations; they reproduce naturally, and their milk production isn’t affected. It is safe to eat beef from a cloned animal.

Nicholson encouraged the group to know their audience and to understand that all may not have a science or agriculture background. Find out what they care about. The people we meet may be worried about something they are not familiar with, such as cloning. Once it’s explained in ways that make them feel comfortable, they may be able to drop the roadblocks and get to the heart of the matter.

Nicholson’s basics of distilling include: What is the practical point? What makes this awesome? Why should we care now? What’s the urgency?

Convey the meaning before getting into detail and engage people without making them feel dumb. She encouraged the group to break the curse of knowledge, by talking to people as you’d speak to friend. That helps to see what limitations might exist.

She encouraged people to package the message by using everyday language, no jargon. Use lots of examples, analogies, comparisons, and metaphors. Be visual; describe a red rose instead of saying flower. And most of all make it a human story and know what you care about and what your audience cares about. She encouraged the use of analogies to create interest. Share what inspired you, along with the thrilling moments; describe agriculture in a way that shows the anger or passion that you feel.

She ended with a quote from Dr. Carl Safina, of the Blue Ocean Institute: “If you choose not to communicate what you do, your work will be increasingly irrelevant. Even worse, you will condemn the rest of us to receive information from sources who may be ignorant or who choose to distort and misinform for their own gain.”