Can We Talk?

(Reprinted from Flying Lessons: verbal-aviation.blogspot.com)

My year off is officially over. I’m still at home, but I’m actively looking for work. Maybe that will be a job in the conventional sense of the word, or maybe it will be a more creative way to bring in income. I’m not sure. I’ve tried telling myself that I ought to be checking the job ads more assertively, mailing brochures to potential clients, making cold calls and all. But it just doesn’t feel right. I have chastised myself, telling myself to just get over my inertia and start the wheels moving again. Don’t be such an introvert, I say. Which is kind of like telling myself to stop having such blue eyes or stop being so short.

I have found a much better source of motivation, though. It comes through in the morning when I am writing in my journal — or sometimes at 3AM when I am wishing that I could get back to sleep. In the deep stillness of my room, little ideas make their way to the surface. Concrete, definite actions that I could take. Actions with energy and enthusiasm behind them. Actions based on what I do naturally, what I enjoy, what gives me satisfaction.

There’s a stillness born of time away from the daily commute, the meetings and deadlines and periods of boredom interspersed with crises. In that space has come an appreciation of things that I have been doing for years, but have not integrated into the way I make my living. With that realization has come a desire to more fully integrate the marketable skills with the calling of what is most important to me.

I have come to acknowledge more fully my talent for talking about scientific and technical issues in language that is engaging and easy to understand. I might not get the story first, but I get it in context and I do my best to get it right. That’s a real talent. It’s much harder than summarizing one’s research in the specialized language of one’s own field. It goes beyond opening up a stream of data in the hopes that the more information you throw at people, the more likely they are to come around to your point of view. It’s very different from “dumbing it down”. Good science writing requires me to respect my reader’s intelligence and convey an accurate, nuanced picture in language that is both precise and accessible.

Good science writing is an act of empathy. When I’m conducting interviews for an article, I have to do my homework ahead of time to know who it is I’m talking to and have some basic knowledge of their work. I don’t want to waste this person’s time asking basic questions that could be answered easily with a little online research. It’s incumbent on me to know and convey to the person I’m interviewing the purpose of the article I’m writing and to ask for information that makes my article into something worth reading. I’m responsible for communicating to my source just why it is that he or she is exactly the person who can best help me learn and convey the specific information I’m going after.

I have to use my skills in asking questions to encourage my sources to talk about the most interesting, relevant, or important parts of their work. I have to listen carefully to what my sources are telling me. I can’t assume that I know in advance what they are going to say. I can’t shape their answers into what I think they should have said. I can’t be reluctant to ask for clarification — even if I think I understand what they meant to say. This requires a certain humility on my part — a willingness to relinquish any concept of myself as an expert and to let my sources speak for themselves. My expertise comes in organizing and conveying the voices of all my sources as accurately and understandably as possible.

Empathy requires me to know something about the audience I’m writing for. What this audience is most interested in might not be the same thing that most interests my sources. Depending on the type of article I’m writing, I might have to spend some time educating my audience, but I can’t be overly didactic without losing their attention. Everyone is busy these days, and a multitude of information sources compete for my reader’s attention. I have to make it worth my reader’s time to read my writing. I have to show my readers something new or present a different point of view on something familiar. Some part of what I say has to be relevant to the world they inhabit.

I have to be trustworthy. If I come across as selling a particular point of view or advocating for a particular cause, I might capture the attention of those who already agree with me. But I will lose those readers who disagree with me — the very readers who might have an “aha!” moment or engage others in a constructive dialogue after having read my article. On the other hand, false balance is just as misleading as blind advocacy. On some issues (climate change is one notable example), the scientific consensus is so strong that giving equal weight to a small opposing minority is a distortion of the facts.

Trustworthiness also requires clarity. “Baffle them with bullshit” is not an acceptable approach here. Few intelligent readers come away convinced that because an issue is presented in dense technical prose, it must be important and correct. On the other hand, talking down to one’s readers, using lazy metaphors, or affecting a false hipness only makes the writer look incompetent. The goal is to convey a message and convey it well.

Conveying a message also requires an understanding that we are not completely rational beings. Two reasonably sane, intelligent, well-intentioned people can look at the same set of facts and draw very different conclusions. We all operate within our own social, historical, and experiential frameworks, and we interpret what we see accordingly. A good writer must provide enough context and perspective to inform, but not overwhelm, her readers.

Our emotions affect how we react to information, whether or not we are aware of it. Thus, humor, diplomacy, and yes, empathy are far more than ways to “spice up” an article. They are necessary elements in connecting with one’s audience and opening a space for dialogue — or perhaps drawing the lines for battle.

The work I enjoy best draws on all these skills, but some of my previous jobs have required a “just-the-facts” approach. For some purposes, that’s enough. An activity report for a government agency is not the right place to hone one’s skills in humorous narrative nonfiction. But since I have all of these skills, it’s up to me to find an outlet for them. Leave the cut-and-dried work to those who excel at it.

Lately, I’ve been exploring social media (FaceBook, Twitter, and the like) as a means of staying in touch with the people I’ve met through my travels, career, and various stages of my life. This has evolved into a means of conversing with people whom I have never met face-to-face, but with whom I share common interests and affinities. I’m exploring the nuances of brief written communications and asking myself how well it is possible to know another person through electronic interaction alone. Electronic communities are changing the way we understand friendship and the way information (or misinformation) spreads.

Increasingly, interest groups, businesses, and other organizations use these channels to shape what we think and how we talk to each other in ways that go far beyond the pop-up ads and “you might be interested in…” suggestions. Skilled communicators realize that this is where their audience is, and they seek out the people they want to reach in this way. Perhaps the entire message can be conveyed right there on the spot. Perhaps a brief note on Twitter alerts readers to a more detailed account elsewhere. Perhaps flinging an idea into the fray sparks a conversation or elicits a wealth of crowd-sourced information, an exchange of diverse points of view. In any case, it’s a matter of going out and engaging in dialogue with readers where they are rather than passively waiting in the backwaters of the information stream.

If this is so interesting to me in my personal interactions, why not investigate ways to build this into my profession as a science writer? After all, one of the reasons I took 2012 as a year off was to discover ways of integrating the various values and interests I have into a means of supporting myself while contributing something worthwhile to the world.