What can scientists learn from politicians?

I spent the last couple of days on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin for Science Meets Parliament (SmP). SmP is an annual 2-day event that brings 200 scientists to Canberra to learn about politics and meet with politicians and policymakers.

The first day is focused on learning about communicating science succinctly, engaging with politicians, the political process and the role of the media in politics. The second day moves to Parliament House to put theory into practice through small meetings with politicians.

I wrote earlier this week about my frustrations with deja vu conversations and empty political rhetoric around the importance of science and innovation in Australia’s economy. While my frustrations where not assuaged by two days close to politics, this post doesn’t focus on the tensions between scientific and political agendas. Rather, at this year’s SmP was struck by some distinct differences between the way scientists and politicians tend to interact with people.

Science communication aficionados Will Grant and Rod Lamberts from the ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science pointed out that politicians’ core work is communicating face-to-face with people in conversation. Conversely, scientists communicate in writing, particularly through journal articles. Although we do learn to deliver presentations and lectures, in general we are rarely skilled communicators in conversation.

Over the 2 days of SmP, this skill difference was evident. As a caveat, I am a scientist and I am certainly not a seasoned conversationalist. I don’t intend to criticise any scientist in particular or scientists as a group. Instead I aim to point out that there are skills we scientists can learn from other communities of professionals.

One the first day, I took my seat early and was joined at the table for the rest of the day by six established scientists I had not meet before and one that I chatted to briefly on a few previous occasions. By the end of the day, I’m not sure any new acquaintance at the table could have recalled my name if pressed. They certainly did not know where I worked or what field I researched. In fact, despite several 10-15 minutes one-on-one conversation, only one had asked me a question about myself*.

In contrast, later that evening we descended on Parliament House for a gala dinner with politicians and rock stars in policy making, science communication and the media. I talked to several politicians and could not get them to answer a single question about themselves. Even a cursory “how was your day?” was deflected back to me. Each of these politicians was high skilled at directing the conversation towards me and my interests. Each was capable of making me feel like the most important person in their day, without being smarmy or slimy. Rather, they know how to converse in a way that seems genuinely interested.

This was Grant and Lambert’s differences in communication skills in practice. Amongst scientists, I felt like I wasn’t in the room. Amongst politicians, I felt like there was no one else in the room. Here’s some ideas I picked up over the last couple of days:

1. Apply a rule of quantification. Even if you are far more advanced in your career than the person you are talking to, dominating a conversation is dull. It’s best to keep in mind a t/n rule, where t is time and n is the number of people speaking. If there are 3 people in a conversation, don’t expect to be speaking more than roughly a third of the time. Otherwise this is a monologue, not a conversation.

2. Be inclusive. When scientists are collected around morning coffee, we tend to form small exclusive groups. When someone new attempts to join the conversation, they are rarely acknowledged or welcomed. By contrast, when politicians or skilled communicators are talking in small groups, a newcomer is not left lingering awkwardly. Here, the politician tends to smile, or briefly interrupt the conversation to offer a handshake and introduction. It’s rude to be exclusive and is not particularly disruptive to informal chats to welcome someone new.  Nobody likes to be on the outer.

3. Don’t monopolise. There were several times when one or two scientists found someone they were keen to talk to and did so at great length. In some cases, they were impervious to subtle or not so subtle cues that others were waiting to talk to their prey, or that said important person was keen to leave or take a pressing phone call. Be attentive to what’s going on around you and be gracious.

It takes practice to be good at conversing with other people. We all tend to half listen to others, waiting until we can jump in and say something intelligent, witty and insightful.  It takes time to learn to actually listen and be interested in others, but just like academic writing, it’s a skill worth practicing.

* I’m willing to concede this might simply be because I’m uninteresting.


2 thoughts on “What can scientists learn from politicians?

  1. Great observations. Being in a job where I interact with pollies a lot, I can say you are spot on about their general level of interpersonal skills. I would add something further to that, which goes to the tactics of lobbying. One of the side effects is that many pollies leave themselves very open to the ‘recency effect’, in that they tend to agree with whoever the last person they spoke to. My theory is that this is because in order to connect with someone they have to allow that person to achieve some level of psychic influence on them. So this is the lesson: if you want to maximise your chances of influencing a politician’s decision on something, try to see them in person, and try to do it as near to the point that they have to make the decision. Not a guarantee, of course, but worth bearing in mind.

  2. I’m willing to concede this might simply be because I’m uninteresting.

    No. Not true.

    They could also not have known whether you are interesting or not when they did not ask about you and what you do.

    Communication aims are different. Politicians need to understand how people think and whether public opinion changes.

    Scientists need to understand how nature works. You need a network for that, but there is limit to the network you can sustain. I no longer am actively trying to make my network larger. Sometimes I am looking still for new contacts in a specific field, but not for random contacts.

    Personalities are different. Scientists are typically introverts and do not like talking to unpredictable strangers. I would guess that politicians are mostly extroverts that thrive on attention and contacts.

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