How researchers get heard
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No Participation Ribbons for Public Experts

Whom do you trust to give you honest, expert feedback on your public expertise?

After (or before) you’ve done a podcast? Given a talk? Posted a video course? Gotten into a scrape in social?

Is it your colleagues? Your comms staff? Your friends? Your partner?

Is it yourself — i.e., nobody?

A friend and public expert asked me recently to critique the production values of their podcast. Be blunt about the problems, they said — just also let us know how we can solve them. So I dove in and listened to a half-dozen episodes.

There were lots of little production problems. But they weren’t at the top of my list when we talked.

Now, their podcast has two kinds of episodes: interviews and explainers. For the interviews, my colleague hosts and asks questions of other experts for about 30 minutes. For the explainers, it’s just my colleague, talking for 10-15 minutes about something happening in the world through the lens of their expertise.

The interviews were very good. Interviewing well is hard; interviewing well while also establishing yourself as an expert (in a way that doesn’t seem forced) can be even harder. My colleague was pulling off both with ease.

The explainers were another matter. They were hard to get through, even though they were half as long. Even worse, I thought an average listener would come away from them less convinced in my colleague’s expertise — even though the explainers were all expertise. The more my colleague talked, the more everything they said sounded the same.

I did a little digging. I couldn’t find a single explainer podcast that’s one expert talking at us. There’s a reason for that.

Good explaining is as difficult as good interviewing — and it’s highly genre-specific to boot. If your explanation starts to feel like a lecture, we’ll switch off faster than my dogs hoover up a dropped slice of pizza. We don’t want to be talked at; we want a learning experience, one that plays to our curiosity and heightens it. That’s why we might readily tuck in to reading an explainer article (with interesting infographics) or watch a short explainer video (with great data viz) or even listen to an explainer talk (with a well-constructed narrative arc). Podcast explainersgo down more easily if they happen in conversation, or simulated conversation, because it’s mimicking the learning experience. It takes a ton of bridges and countdowns and other production work to make a solo explainer go down easy.

Could my colleague have known any of this on their own? Unlikely, unless they’d been listening critically to a lot of podcasts for years.

But somebody advising them should have. Someone should have said to them, either before after the first explainer recording: That’s not going to work. Here are your realistic options. Here’s how you should do this, given your goals. And given that no one will listen the way you’re doing it.

I’m a big believer that researchers are our best public experts. But it’s an uncommon researcher that has great instincts for the craft of public expertise. The other 99.999% of the research world needs trusted advisors. They might be on your comms staff. You should find out or find someone else.

Research communications is full of participation ribbons.

None here.