Building compelling stories about your research topic
...and pushing your ideas in an inherently biased society
The first lecture of the Exploring Industry Experience course was given by Matti Apunen with the topic “Making headlines, Specialists, innovations and the media”. I found the lecture very interesting and enlightening. I will try to organize my thoughts in this blog post. Since there were many topics discussed in the lecture, I will be focusing on two points that really stood out to me as a PhD student of the DSII program.
Things have changed from the time when all it took was to get a 30 second timeslot during prime-time television to be sure that millions of people around the country would receive your message. As internet and social networking services have become more common place, it has become increasingly difficult to get your voice heard, because instead of a single output channel, there are millions of different channels in the internet, making it hard for your message to stand out. People have also become increasingly skeptical. In order to sell your idea or product, you must build a compelling story around it, that will spread around the social network of internet like kind of like a contagious virus.
As a PhD student, this spoke to me a lot, since when we are pitching our research or an idea, or even applying for funding or grants, we must present a compelling case, or story if you will. Something that the recipient cares about and can relate to, as well as something that will stand out from the others. For example, my PhD research is about building a compact gas sensor, for measuring air pollutants for instance. It is very compelling, being an engineer, to just tell people that this sensor is extremely compact and allows you to measure air pollutant levels down to 1 part per billion level. Experts or engineers may find this somewhat interesting, but this will unlikely pique the interest of an average person. Why should they care about the size of this sensor, or how accurate measurements it can make? How is it going to affect their life? These are some of the questions they care about, and what you should address in your story.
A better story could be something like this: “WHO estimates that 4.2 million premature deaths per year worldwide are linked to air pollution. To make the figure easier to digest, this amounts to 75% of the Finnish population. What if we could integrate a compact pollutant sensor into every car or even our everyday gadgets like smart phones? What if the sensors were connected to the cloud and would tell us in real time the amount of air pollutions anywhere in urban areas? This would help us immensely in our fight against pollution, and even global warming.” This is already much better story that most people can relate to, at least at some level. It can of course still be refined even more.
Another fascinating subject that was touched in the lecture was the inherent cognitive biases that every person has: negativity bias, confirmation bias, and loss aversion. Especially the loss aversion, where we do not like the idea that something is taken away from us, such as when new technologies replace the old ones. We tend to look for risks and flaws in the new technology, even though the old technology might be ridden with even bigger flaws. This is also where the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality comes from: Why do we need this new thing when the old one works perfectly well? However, I think this really sets us back as a society and makes the acceptance and adaptation of new ideas a hard and sluggish process. I think it would help if everyone was aware of these inherent biases, since it can make us more open to new knowledge and ideas. This definitely concerns us PhD students, since we often spend a significant amount of our time working on new idea(s).
- Samu-Pekka Ojanen, Doctoral Researcher