Scientists and technology experts – who know so much about hugely important stuff – are often not-so-learned when it comes to communicating about their impressive knowledge.
Corona Times have so far seen a mixed range of attempts by those who know most about Covid-19 to convey their know-how and its implications.
When their efforts have been bad they’ve often been very very bad.
The communications attempts by science and technology experts frequently involve loads of baffling jargon and unexplained initials with little or no thought about the requirements and existing knowledge of their audience members.
But as someone who has helped a lot of technical experts enhance their communications skills, there is some positive news.
Because science and technology experts are such smart people, when they apply themselves to improving their communications skills they typically learn very fast and very well.
Unfortunately many of these experts have not had the desire or the opportunity to professionally enhance their communications skills.
But when they do take advantage of the opportunity to improve, they can really leap forwards fast.
So it’s my duty to pay tribute to a great communication performance from a scientific expert when I see it – particularly from one who hasn’t always been a crash-hot communicator.
TRULY GREAT ANSWER TO A REALLY TOUGH QUESTION
It’s come this month in the form of a truly great answer to a really tough question.
The heroic answer has come from the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Jonathan Van-Tam.
WHAM BAM THANKS VAN-TAM
Professor Van-Tam’s starring moment came live on TV in response to a question from the BBC’s Medical Editor, Fergus Walsh, amidst the splendidly upbeat news about breakthrough developments on Covid-19 vaccines.
The editor asked rather cunningly: “Do you think it would be a good idea if the Prime Minister and people like yourself were first in the queue for a Covid vaccine – and that might be a vote of confidence in a Covid vaccine?”
It was a tough and tricky question – but also a fair and reasonable one – which made it all-the-more challenging.
The dangers within the question for Jonathan Van-Tam lurked in two directions.
If the professor said a simple “No”, it could have been seen as an official scientific vote of no confidence in the vaccines, signalling that he, and possibly Boris Johnson too, were personally afraid of it.
If the professor said a simple “Yes” it could have suggested a view that he and Boris Johnson are more important and deserving than everyone else in the country.
But the Deputy Chief Medical Officer – who hasn’t always been brilliant under pressure at Downing Street Corona Times media conferences – was ready to avoid this double-sided trap.
It suggests to me that he’s benefited from both some recent media training to lift his game – and some excellent preparation enabling him to be more ready than usual for this kind of question.
Whether or not my theory is correct, Jonathan Van-Tam did succeed in turning the crisis of a tough question into an opportunity for a great answer.
This is what we should always aspire to in the face of what have been called in Australia “blowtorch-on-the-belly” questions.
And like all great answers, this one involved conveying a vital message to his wider audience.
The high point was where Jonathan Van-Tam introduced what he calls “The Mum Test” whereby he said he’d told his 78-year-old Mum “Be ready to be called (for the vaccine)”.
When he delivers this part of the answer, he’s effectively addressing every senior citizen in the UK – and every other citizen who may be vaccine-suspicious or vaccine-phobic.
Personalising the message like this through deploying his Mum was genius – and it made a big and positive media splash.
You can observe the great answer in action by clicking on this image at:
As a media trainer who has worked with many civil servants and scientific and technological experts – but not Jonathan Van-Tam – I’m obliged to point out that despite his great answer, he still has scope for further improvement.
There are two important “even-better-ifs” which he might like to address in his next media training opportunity and which apply to many other expert answerers on and off the news media.
1. Whenever you refer to a technical body that many people will not know about, spell out the name in full and/or give a brief description of it. So rather than saying “MHRA” which would not resonate many TV watchers, say either “the medicines and healthcare products regulatory agency” or “the medical products regulator”. This helps keep everyone in the picture.
Learning point for all:
IF YOUR ELDERLY MUM WON’T UNDERSTAND, SAY IT ANOTHER WAY.
2. When planning your great answers, make sure you get the grammar right. Consult where necessary to achieve this. So instead of saying “most highest risk”, say “highest risk” or “at most risk” etc.
Learning point for all:
IF YOUR ENGLISH TEACHER WOULDN’T APPROVE, SAY IT ANOTHER WAY.
Having said this, the good professor nonetheless still deserves hero status for his almost perfect answer.
He’s demonstrated that those with great scientific expertise can communicate effectively with the wider masses IF they do the training and plan, prepare and practise for the toughest questions.
Despite these “even-better-ifs”, Professor Van-Tam, you’re still edging closer to that elusive A-Plus!
And what’s more, Professor, your 78-year-old Mum can be mighty proud of you!
The “Mum Test” can also be applied to everyone’s communications skills.
Can you convey something that’s complex or technical in a way that your Mum would understand? If so you’ve passed – unless, perhaps, your Mum happens to be a rocket scientist.
The really good news is that that giving great answers to tough questions – in a way that you can pass the Mum Test – is a learnable skill.
COMMUNICATIONS-BOOSTING SESSIONS CAN BE FUN
The equally good news is that learning how to give those great answers can also be FUN.
This is evidenced in the video below where the fun element of learning to give great answers to tough questions is made clear – thanks to the help of an inspired “volunteer” learner called Ges Ray.
The learner in this instance is a Professional Speaking Association colleague of mine who, like me, insists that when he teaches presentation skills it should be fun.
This gives rise to Ges’s toughest question about what might happen if a grumpy person in his audience reckons it hasn’t been fun (which is highly unlikely as Ges is such a fun guy!).
We tackled this question before a live audience just as Coronavirus was starting early in the year – before any bans on shaking hands or sitting close together at public events.
The good news is that everyone in the audience, to the best of my knowledge, has survived.
And there’s further good news in that Ges has some great theatrical skills which proved to everyone present that learning how to give great answers can indeed be fun.
You can check out the fun elements of learning – especially Ges’s endearing facial expressions when under pressure – by clicking on the video here:
If you would like to know more about how boosting your communications skills can be fun – in face-to-face, socially distanced, or in online sessions – there’s more information about Clever Corona Communications here:
And there’s more about transforming the communications skills of you and your team here:
So with the arrival of the Coronavirus vaccines on the horizon, it’s possible you could be inoculated against Covid-19 relatively soon – as Professor Van-Tam’s Mum might tell you.
And learning-the-fun-way – through painless communications-boosting online or face-to-face sessions – can inoculate you and your team against atrocious answers before or after Christmas.