Written by: Alyse Krausz
Editors: Sophie Hill, Lihan Xie, and Noah Steinfeld
I remember thinking, “Who is this Dr. Fauci?” as he took the stage in Ohio Stadium to give the commencement speech at my college graduation ceremony. It turned out that he was the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), but I was hoping for someone a little more exciting, or at least someone I had heard of before. Little did I know that a mere four years later, Fauci’s name would be all over the news as the most prominent scientific voice in a pandemic. The recent media coverage has confirmed what I discovered on my graduation day: Dr. Fauci is an exceptional communicator with plenty of lessons to teach.
Know and seek out your audience
Thirty seconds into his commencement speech, Fauci was already confessing that he didn’t remember who his college commencement speaker was, let alone what they had said (It was like he knew exactly what I was thinking!). Fauci clearly recognized that the number one rule of communication is to know your audience and to communicate for their benefit, which usually involves understanding demographics, assessing background knowledge, and using appropriate vocabulary. On my graduation day, his audience was a bunch of twenty-somethings who wanted to get their diploma as quickly as possible and go celebrate with their family and friends, so he kept his speech short and only shared personal anecdotes he thought we would appreciate. But an audience is seldom that homogenous.
From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Fauci recognized that his audience, the “American people”, is not a single audience, rather it is a vast collection of audiences. His appearances on the daily coronavirus briefings, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News only reached about four percent of Americans. An audience can only benefit from the information that reaches them, so Fauci decided to meet people where they were by appearing on an Instagram Live with Stephen Curry, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Lilly Singh’s YouTube channel, and The New York Times “The Daily” podcast, to name a few.
Most scientists are unlikely to appear on The Daily Show. However, we can still reach diverse audiences by using the social media tools at our disposal. We can guest write for a science communication blog, such as MiSciWriters at the University of Michigan, start an Instagram account or YouTube channel, and post on Twitter. Each social media platform offers the opportunity to experiment with bringing our message to different audiences.
Stay on message
All of Fauci’s media appearances convey a simple message: trust the science. His interview answers almost always follow the same structure: what we know, what we don’t know, and what we should do. When presenting research findings, we can easily get stuck in an “and” loop by presenting the audience with so much data that a communication effort begins to sound like “and…and…and…” This style of communication forces the audience to find their own takeaway or central message. But Fauci doesn’t get bogged down in conveying as much data as possible. Instead, he concisely presents the key pieces of data and the actions we all should take as a result.
When interviews start to veer off topic, Fauci gently steers his audience back to his central message. He does not answer questions that force him to point fingers or lay blame, and he refuses to make the science partisan. (While most of us do not have to contend with direct partisanship, we may encounter “charged opinions” if our research is viewed as controversial.) He does not engage with any attacks on his credibility and, with an “Okay, let’s stop this nonsense”, returns to business as usual. Fauci does not let any individual, political agenda, or opinion dictate what his central message should be; scientific evidence alone influences his talking points.
Engage your audience
A central message only sticks if the audience is engaged, but telling people to wear a mask or stay home simply because that’s what the science dictates is often alienating. Fauci had to find a way to convince Americans to adopt social-distancing guidelines, and he landed on a simple answer: be empathetic. Everyone’s life has changed to some degree due to the pandemic, and failure to acknowledge that change is unproductive. In his conversation with Stephen Curry, Fauci acknowledged that staying home and wearing masks are inconvenient, but these actions will allow us to get back to activities we enjoy doing sooner. Fauci’s empathy and candor have resonated with Gen Z enough to make him a meme. Despite his lack of public social media accounts, Fauci’s internet presence has organically developed into something politicians try to buy. Influencers have expressed their support for Fauci, and mask wearing challenges have made the rounds on social media. Fauci has engaged certain members of his audience so effectively that they’re spreading his message for him.
While we might not be able to start social media challenges, we can have conversations. The goal of any science communication effort should be to open a dialogue about our research whether that’s in-person after a talk or in the comments section on a blog post. If our conversations encourage a member of our audience to share our science with at least one other person, we’ve already engaged our audience just as Dr. Fauci has done.
Fauci’s speeches and interviews during the coronavirus pandemic have left a deep impression on me. But I confess that I don’t remember much of what he said at my commencement. However, I do remember how he said it; he spoke to us as equals despite his decades of additional life experience. Fauci has become an indispensable scientific voice in the midst of global crises because he brings his humanity to the forefront of his communication efforts. He recognizes that positive experiences can help people retain information, so he leads with respect and empathy along with facts. Fauci reaches out to diverse audiences and encourages them to trust the science and take action not only as an expert but as a fellow human being. We, as fellow scientists, have the examples and the tools to do the same.
Alyse is a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering in Prof. Mark Burns’s lab where she is developing a device to diagnose traumatic brain injury from a blood sample. Outside of the lab, she is active in science communication by coordinating workshops for RELATE, editing for MiSciWriters, and occasionally writing for her blog Prose on Paper. Alyse also loves to read, drink tea, try out new recipes, and practice yoga. You can follow her on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.