How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

We Were Warned. So What.

“You were warned.”

What an arrogant, infantilizing, alienating, counterproductive communications tactic.

Well, we feel guilty and stupid now, so of course we’ll absorb your wisdom more attentively next time. Count on it.

Manu Lall and Paulina Concha of the Columbia Water Center published an op-ed this week for The New York Times, alerting us to the tens of thousands of dams in the United States that are in danger of failing, as the two in Central Michigan failed last week.

It’s an excellent piece, making the case for preemptive strategy and then action against the inevitable catastrophe a dam failure (or cascade of dam failures) would precipitate.

But it contains a couple of cliche phrases researchers use way too much:

  • “The events of last week should not have come as a surprise.”
  • “We won’t be able to say we weren’t warned.”

In this case, “the events of last week should not have come as a surprise,” Lall and Concha argue, because the AP reported last November that 19 dams in Michigan (including the ones that failed) were in bad shape.

And in this case, “we won’t be able to say we weren’t warned” because the US federal government’s 2018 national climate assessment mentioned the hazard aging and deteriorating dams and levees posed when exposed to heavy rainfall.

Think about that. A single news article and a single report. That’s what constitutes our warning.

Clearly, neither was enough to motivate action — which is the point of communications, after all.

And who could be surprised by that? A single piece of reportage or communications seldom is enough to motivate action. Woodward and Bernstein had to write stories for two years before Richard Nixon resigned.

Every four years, The American Society of Civil Engineers issues a scorecard rating the state of US infrastructure. They’ve been doing this for decades. The last scorecard, put out in 2017, gave the nation a D+. That’s the same rating as 2013. Up slightly from the Ds of 2009 and 2005.

ASCE has one planned for 2021. They’re not saying “You were warned” and sitting back, arms folded. They keep warning us (and mapping pathways for infrastructure investment).

“We were warned,” of course, is endemic in the pandemic. But not only.

The self-inflating, self-protective scold of “We told you so” wouldn’t make a top 1,000 ways list of turning insight into action. But it is consistent with communication and journalism, which is allergic to repetition.

Here’s the thing: You aren’t a journalist. You’re marketing an idea.

Your goal isn’t to check a box or be a lonely oracle or look good to your peers on Twitter. Your goal is uptake.

And for uptake, repetition is important. I’m repeating myself here, but …

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.

Stop telling us you or someone else already said it. That really doesn’t help.

Get back to saying it, again and again and again, until you’re sure you’ve gotten through.