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Editorial: Selling the problem (or: 43.3% of the message)

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. 2009. Editorial: Selling the problem (or: 43.3% of the message). the Exchange 16(1): 2, 8–9.

In his essay Godot for it (Harper's, July 2006), Stephen Brown joined the long series of writers purporting to teach business managers something from the works of a historical figure, in this case the author Samuel Beckett. Unlike many of the charlatans in this line of work (for example, anything related to "management according to Shakespeare"), Brown had some important points to make. But what stuck with me was a brief quotation from the end of the article. In writing about marketing, he had this to say:

"There's more to marketing than selling solutions: the problems for which we have solutions have to be sold as well."

The subtitle of this essay was inspired a few facts and figures published in the same issue in Harper's Index, the magazine's monthly collection of intriguing and infuriating and ironic statistics. Take, for instance, the fact that Hummer sales had increased three-fold over the past year, during a period when gas prices climbed more than 80%. Take, for instance, the fact that an estimated 90% of Americans believed that most Americans are too fat, but only 39% believed that they, personally, were too fat. (In short, 39/90 = 43.3%.)

What do these two statistics, pulled from the bewildering sea of data that tries to drown us each day, have in common? The common thread is that only part of the message is getting through. Sure, everyone's heard of greenhouse warming and everyone believes it's a bad thing, yet few of us believe that it's such a bad thing we should buy a Toyota Prius instead of a Hummer—even though the ongoing cost of that choice is 80% more painful than it was a year ago, and may be another 80% more painful next year. Sure, everyone (well... 90% of everyone) knows that being too fat is a bad thing, but only 4 in 10 believe that they themselves have a problem they should work on.

Why are these people so confident that the problem is someone else's, not theirs?

There are many possible explanations, but I believe that it comes back to Brown's insights into marketing. As scientific communicators, we've done a great job of selling solutions: Everyone knows about hybrid vehicles and public transit, and everyone knows that they're better for the environment. Similarly, everyone knows that eating more fruits and vegetables, eating less meat and highly processed food, and increasing their daily exercise time is good for them. For those who aren't prepared to go quite this far in adopting a solution, there are less drastic solutions: buying a car that is more fuel-efficient, but not so efficient that it's radical, or eating specially prepared "diet" foods. There's no shortage of solutions. What's in short supply seems to be a clear understanding of the problems.

The origins of rhetoric lie in the art of persuasion, and one powerful rhetorical technique relies on making an argument personally meaningful to the reader. This is clearly something we're familiar with as technical communicators, since we've all been repeatedly exposed to the concept that we need to think carefully about our audience's needs before we ever set finger to keyboard. That's something we're far less familiar with as scientific communicators, since our training—I'm tempted to say our conditioning—is that science is objective, and that facts speak for themselves. We have all been trained in some aspects of rhetoric, such as the need to muster facts in a certain way to bolster an argument, and in extreme cases, maybe even to descend to the level of using ad hominem attacks on discredited scientists or their science. What we're lacking is a clear sense of how to add what marketers know so well to our rhetorical toolkit: the knowledge that solutions alone are not enough, because it is only a keen awareness of problems that motivates someone to seek out a solution.

The vast majority of journal articles in the sciences begin with a clear statement of the problem the authors set out to solve, preceded by a lengthy discussion of the context in which that problem arises. Yet journal authors are writing for an audience that already understands that problem and is keenly interested in learning a solution. That's not the case in many other forms of scientific communication, and particularly not the case in those forms that target the general public. As the statistics on Hummer sales and obesity indicate, the general public may have grown tired of hearing about the problems because the problems are not personally meaningful to them—or perhaps are sufficiently scary that it's easier to pretend the problem doesn't exist. As a certain melancholy Dane once noted, it's not easy to "take arms against a sea of problems, and by opposing, end them".

How can we overcome these problems? There is no easy solution. It's human nature to wait until a problem becomes so apparent that we have no choice but to confront it. Were our species name (the sapiens part of Homo sapiens) truly justified, the word "proactive" would not be a necessary addition to our vocabulary; instead, we must be repeatedly told to think ahead and act before it becomes both necessary and too late. A partial solution lies in what we've learned as technical communicators: that we must focus on our audience. We must start our communications efforts with a clear understanding of their needs, and must build on that understanding by clearly explaining the problems in ways that are meaningful to that audience, without scaring them so much they become paralyzed and incapable of action. Rather than fear-mongering or distorting the truth to make it more palatable, we must present problems in a way that inspires our audience to take action. Then, using all the skills at our command, we must present reasonable and effective solutions in such a way that it seems easier to adopt the solutions than it is to ignore the problems.

A powerful example lies in the statistics being promoted by BP—formerly "British Petroleum", but now using this acronym to stand for "Beyond Petroleum". Many economists have argued that we cannot adopt energy conservation measures because the cost to the North American economy would be so excessive that it would throw the economy into recession. (As famous economist Fred Pryor wryly observes, "An economist is someone who sees something working in practice, and asks whether it would work in theory.") Yet BP claims they'll be saving US$650 million over 10 years while simultaneously reducing their emissions of greenhouse-effect gases. The North American automobile industry claims that it's not economically practical to improve the fuel efficiency of its fleet of vehicles, yet the same manufacturers produce cars with roughly double the fuel efficiency of the North American fleet for sale in the European market. Want proof? Have a look at the statistics on the following Web page: <>. In case you use the miles per gallon calculator instead of litres, note that the Canadian and European gallon is 4 L, not the ca. 3.8 L used for U.S. gallons. That alters the numbers upward by an additional 5% or so in favor of the European vehicles.

As I hope I've demonstrated in this essay, we scientific communicators need to think beyond our standard mantra of "the facts speak for themselves", and begin learning from other forms of communication so that we can add persuasion to our toolkit. In some cases, that means we must skillfully sell the problems: they must be clear without becoming scary, and the solutions must be both obvious and desirable.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

©2004–2017 Geoffrey Hart. All rights reserved