How researchers get heard
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Be Careful With Your Expert Metastory

When Anthony Fauci was photographed in May going maskless indoors at some crowded events leading up to last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner (an event he said he refused to attend because of COVID), I said to myself: Yes, he’s human. But he’s forgetting who he is — the “I represent science” guy. He’s forgetting the Anthony Fauci metastory. Sure enough, his critics seized on his maskless appearance to declare: This Fauci — masks for you but not for me — was the real Fauci all along.

Your metastory — the story of who you are and what you stand for and why you’re different than other organizations or researchers — is precious. It is your external identity. When you violate it, when you do or say something that contradicts it, your audience often reacts in ways that might seem to you overreactions. Hey, you say! It was just an angry tweet! But to them, you’ve shape-shifted. They are as confused and disturbed as if they have seen you, the public expert, emerge from the bathroom in a clown suit and start making balloon animals.

Let me illustrate this disjunction. Over the last year or so I’ve probably bought about $2k worth of luggage, briefcases and assorted bags and accessories from Tom Bihn, a Seattle-based company founded in the 80s by a man named Tom Bihn, who through last year was still running the company and helping design new bags and updating older designs.

Tom Bihn (the company and the man) have a cult following, an overused phrase that is perfectly apt in the case of this perfectionist bag maker, the tiny company he created to execute his vision, and his fanatical customer base. Tom Bihn bags are not obviously different; they are elegantly and thoughtfully designed and constructed, but other bag purveyors certainly offer product lines that are far more sleek or stylish. What Tom Bihn the company has — and sells — is an unparalleled metastory (made up of interlocking stories) to tell its audience:

  • An origin story of a founder who started sewing his own bags because he was dissatisfied with what he was finding in the marketplace and just never stopped for 40+ years, imbuing his ethos into every product and company-customer interaction;
  • A story of loyalty and patriotism, of a company determined to keep its production in Seattle and its Seattle workforce employed despite its competition moving to factories offering cheaper labor in Asia and Latin America and despite the pandemic;
  • A story of unrelenting quality, of not settling until they found the perfect raw material (lining, zipper, frame, strap) for the task they wanted it to perform in this bag, of going through 100 designs for a single bag before discovering the right one;
  • A story of family and warmth and individual character and (if possible) corporate overcommunication, of customer representatives who would remember why you told them you were buying a bag when you called in to order it and write or draw you a personalized note citing that reason on your package’s box; of company leaders who tested and used the bags right alongside you and took in your feedback and made changes or walked back things that didn’t work and did all this publicly; of those leaders responding to customers questions and concerns in the company’s public forums (which it started well before Facebook) personally, quickly and in voices that sounded like real human beings who cared about us.

There’s more, but I think you can start to see the appeal, even if you’re fine using that backpack you got free as conference swag 10 years ago. Tom Bihn fans shop for and buy and discuss his bags over and over because the shopping and the buying and the discussion made them, they felt, part of a shared metastory — the story of a company doing business the way they’d like the world to do business, the story of a world they’d like to live in.

Until last week.

Last week, a Tom Bihn Facebook group member shared an article from a deal broker about how that deal broker had helped Tom Bihn sell his company late last year to a private equity firm. It turned out that Tom Bihn and his leadership team had left the company eight months earlier without saying a word to anyone other than family and close friends, and that a new CEO from the private equity firm (as well as a new head designer, both with no experience designing luggage or bags) had taken over.

For eight months, the company had said nothing about the changes. The site was still marketing Tom Bihn as the creative and ethical force behind the company. Some keen observers had detected subtle changes in products and marketing, but there was nothing to mark the transfer to a new regime.

Of course, the Tom Bihn forums and its Facebook and subReddit blew up — why hadn’t customers heard about this earlier? Some fans remain stunned, but are taking a wait-and-see approach; some are telling horror stories of how private equity takeovers have gutted and ruined many a fine company; and others just feel betrayed and are getting off the Tom Bihn bus now.

It’s just a bag, of course. Tom Bihn sold bags, and people bought them. But the Tom Bihn metastory — that’s the part people really bought into. That’s why people are so angry and disappointed and hurt by Tom Bihn’s seeming lack of transparency about the transition to new leadership and the future of the company — because he had done the story part so well, and now seemed to be abandoning it completely.

Research communicators love to talk about the importance of storytelling — by which they mean telling a story, usually with the scientist as the central character or observer, that the rest of us listen to and laugh at or admire. You tell; we absorb.

But the far more important story — about your research organization or even you as a researcher — is the metastory, the one we buy into about you. The story of who you are and what you stand for and why you’re different than other organizations or researchers. You start the metastory, but the people you’re telling it to must take it up and create it with you for it to work. It’s why they trust or don’t trust you; why they use or don’t use your research; why they respect or don’t respect your expertise.

Because many researchers think they and their organizations by definition stand for objectivity and rationality, they never stop to formulate their brand story. Or they formulate it and then forget it when they go on social media or give a presentation in front of a skeptical community audience. I’ve seen it again and again — where research gets lost is when research stops telling its metastory, fails to understand that every tweet, every answer, every interaction has to reflect and reinforce that metastory.

What’s your metastory as a researcher, as a research organization? And do you have different metastories to different audiences? Write it/them down. Put a few choice words from it on a sticky at the bottom of your computer. Look at the full text at the end of the week, and see how it lines up with what you’ve emailed, put on social media, pitched to reporters, blogged. It’s who you are to the rest of the world. Don’t forget or violate it without an exceptionally good reason. And if you don’t like it, change it now, and make sure everyone knows why.