How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Beyond the Deficit Model

It’s now an article of both evidence and faith among science communicators that the information deficit model of communicating science (the idea that you, a non-scientist, have a deficit of information or knowledge about something and I, the expert, am going to give you enough information to remove your deficit) doesn’t work.

The ecologist, academic and blogger Terry McGlynn writes about the alternative: telling stories, being vulnerable and gaining trust. (Here’s his hilarious personal example of when the deficit model didn’t work — when he, an ant expert, tried to explain to a non- ant expert who had just visited Costa Rica that the reputedly lethal ant the man had seen there was…not lethal.)

Problem: the poll accompanying that blog post — in which McGlynn asks whether you can explain the deficit model, vaguely explain it or don’t know anything about it — shows only 20% of its readers were confident they could explain the model.

That’s the first problem with the “deficit of the deficit model” campaign: after a decade of hard push, still nobody in research gets it.

The second problem: virtually nobody in research acts on it. Let’s read the news together for a week and try to find someone promoting their new findings through telling a story. They do what researchers have always done: explain. Sometimes even clearly. Stories don’t scale. They don’t translate well into headlines.

I wonder if, in negating the frame of deficit communications, the anti-deficit model campaign has actually activated it, in the wonderful formulation of George Lakoff.

Climate is, of course, the exception: seemingly every environmental group now has a climate change storytelling unit. My reading is that evidence for the effectiveness of these interventions is mixed: while stories have been found to be more effective than information narratives in promoting pro-environment behavior, how people remember and recollect stories about climate change depends heavily on their world views. The messenger is always the message, and (Lakoff again) people vote their worldviews, not their best interests.

I used to be gung ho about avoiding the deficit model. Now, in my consulting work, I don’t think about it much. My clients (without exception) are all advancing paradigms counter to prevailing wisdom, but they don’t get traction primarily through storytelling and avoiding information. They get traction by a) demonstrating to their audiences (mostly corporate and policy) that they’re one of them (that they understand their problems and speak their language) and b) showing that their paradigms will give those audiences competitive advantage or help them achieve their objectives.

Establishing trust is critical before you hand someone a new frame that might help them solve a problem. And you establish trust most easily with those people with whom you already share things — a desire for a solution, for instance, or that worldview or culture. As James Clear says: if you map beliefs on a spectrum of 10 units and “you find yourself at Position 7, then there is little sense in trying to convince someone at Position 1. The gap is too wide. When you’re at Position 7, your time is better spent connecting with people who are at Positions 6 and 8, gradually pulling them in your direction.”

This is a grasstops strategy; I wouldn’t deploy it for a mass campaign. But at the core of it, it’s a hybrid of anti-deficit and deficit — identification and information. Post-anti-deficit, if you will.

I’d bet you’re doing some version of the same.