Lots of things make for good science communication but sales techniques might be overlooked and under-valued. Can we, should we, sell science?

Should we be trying to sell science to the masses? Whether we want to encourage more young people to enter scientific careers, secure funding for research, influence policy makers or improve awareness and adoption of innovation, it comes down to buy-in. And, although ‘the masses’ seems like too broad a label, when one considers the diverse audience of investors, beneficiaries and influencers – not to mention the power of public consensus and attitudes – perhaps it is appropriate after all.

What probably feels less comfortable is the concept of ‘selling’ – it feels untranslatable to our familiar examples of science communication. If we consider the bastion of science communication, public engagement and wonderment that is the Royal Institution’s Christmas lectures: is Sophie Scott (this year’s lecturer) going to stand in the Faraday theatre and purposefully set out to create leads, prospects and eventually buyers of science? Probably not.

And yet, there is still something to learn from sales techniques when it comes to science communication. Neil Rackham published his book Spin selling in 1988. Spin stands for a series of question types: situation (what led to the problem you have); problem (tell me more about it); implication (are bad things going to happen) and need pay-off (what do you need to make this better). This conversational model, if deployed correctly, should lead to more sales. It’s worth mentioning that Rackham based his approach on extensive research of over 35,000 sales calls over a 12-year period, identifying the traits of successful and failed sales attempts. Shortly after publishing his research, he trained a group of sales people in his Spin technique and their sales increased by 17%.

The weighting and tone of these questions is crucial. Too many situational questions can make people uncomfortable, instead do your homework beforehand. Top sellers ask more problem questions and also make sure to uncover multiple problems before moving to the implications (if you fixate on just one problem, and then others crop up, you might not have the answers). Before raising the implications, make sure you know how your solution will address them. Finally, buyers should be able to articulate how your solution meets their needs without you spelling it out repeatedly. If they can’t do that, you’ve failed at the first three questions.

Let’s consider the Christmas lectures in this context (accepting that the lecture is not exactly the cutting edge of communication formats). As a lecturer, would you want the audience to leave the theatre and take an action of some kind? Do something, anything, based on what you have said? It could be enthusing about science in the pub, choosing to study science, parents encouraging their children to be inquisitive, or perhaps some form of activism. For any of these things to happen, that audience member must have been captured by an idea. And Rackham would suggest that Spin techniques could help you sell that idea more powerfully. I might be interested in this thing you’re selling if you’ve made it relevant to my situation and problems – but you’ll have a hard time doing that if you’re too busy pitching to ask questions and listen. A common criticism of the lecture format is precisely that the lone orator behind the lectern speaking to the auditorium has a tough time involving the audience in a meaningful way.

You can read a lot more about what makes great science communication in Kit Chapman’s article. And, with Christmas nearly upon us, hopefully you will all have a little bit of free time to enjoy Sophie Scott’s lectures with friends and family. Don’t worry, we can set some first-quarter sales targets for science communication in the new year.