How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

What Pundits Can Teach Us

Nobody likes pundits, although it’s hard to imagine our world now without them.

Which is why we — researchers and research directors and research communicators — should be reading and watching and listening to pundits. A lot.

They’re like the innocuous protoplasm that astronauts brought back from Mars in some horror film, only to watch it take over the planet.

They’re winning. We need to learn from them.

That’s hard for researchers, because pundits are people who offer opinions to large audiences on topics…regardless of whether they are experts on those subjects.

(Or, as Wikipedia nicely puts it, they are people “knowledgeable (or who can at least appear to be knowledgeable)” about what they are talking about.

Our uncertainty about pundits’ authority to speak makes us suspect them as mercenaries, either paid or ideological. Unfortunately, in the age of cultural cognition, trusting an expert from Yale or Stanford on climate change or GMOs has become for many people a less rational act, as Dan Kahan would say, than trusting their neighbors. For many debates, we’re all pundits now — expert and faux expert alike.

Which is why Wikipedia follows up the clause I quoted above with “or considered a scholar in said area.”

But pundits have much to teach us, if we can get past our prejudices about them as intellectual charlatans and buffet browsers.

That’s because their effectiveness stems not just from playing fast and loose with ideas and research. It starts with their understanding of some basic principles of communications and marketing impact. Principles immediately transferrable to our work establishing authority for our expertise.

Some of those principles would include:

  • Using simple, powerful rhetorical devices to make our points with maximum impact;
  • Publishing our content at a high cadence to establish and build our presence and mind share;
  • Understanding hooks (the news pegs that we can leverage to get our content attention) and white space (the unique space our arguments can occupy in any given debate);
  • Having a problem/solution orientation for all our thought leadership work — not just talking about research findings and next steps for the field, but giving decision makers and others actionable insights and frameworks.

Understand this: in today’s media world, pundits opine for a living, either directly or indirectly.

That means they have to understand how to grab attention, keep it, and build an audience over time.