How researchers get heard
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Repetition is Important

[Reading time: 106 seconds]

I know probably a dozen scientists who privately confide that they think the idea Earth is in its Sixth Extinction Event possesses a distinct barnyard odor.

So why is the idea we’re in a Sixth Extinction Event so firmly entrenched?

Repetition is important.

Years ago I saw the scientist Jon Foley tweeting the same item 10 or 15 times a week. How annoying, I remember thinking. What the hell is he doing?

Years later, I understand. Tweets make mayflies look like Methuselah. Repetition is important.

Last week I was wondering why appealing to “science curiosity” had become the new great hope for reducing climate polarization. It seems such a labored, unlikely route.

Then I remembered: Repetition is important.

If there’s one thing researchers, communicators and journalists all agree on, it’s this:

Don’t repeat yourself.

Researchers don’t publish the same finding twice. Communicators don’t make the same announcement twice. Journalists don’t break the same story twice.

For each of these professions, getting it out first is all there is. If you missed what we published, we won’t repeat it. We might expand on it later, but we won’t repeat it.

But when working to get something across to actual people — instead of conforming to a cultural norm — repetition is important.

That’s because reality isn’t viral. It’s fungal. Most concepts infiltrate slowly. Marketing science shows that, unless people are repeatedly exposed to a new concept or product, they won’t even acknowledge it.

And once we’ve acknowledged the new thing, repeating it again and again builds our processing and retrieval fluency around it. We come to believe or prefer it — the truth effect.

So in marketing, we repeat. We say something until we are beyond sick of saying it, until we are convinced that our repetition has become embarrassing.

Only then can we be hopeful that other people might have heard it for the first time.

Clarity by itself doesn’t beget understanding. Repetition does.

Most research-driven organizations, steeped as they are in research culture, resist making this shift from clarity to repetition.

It requires a fundamental shift from communications — from the beautiful fantasy of saying something clearly just once and being understood — to marketing, to the long, messy, exhausting campaign mode of repeating and testing messages and insights and ideas until they and you have market penetration.

But if impact is your job, then repetition is your job.

Or, as I heard someone say last week (rather memorably):

“There’s something to be said for having people say, ‘Everywhere I go I see him. He must be important.’”