Part 2: The Message

2.6 Style vs. Substance

Learning Objectives

  • To discuss what communication ‘style’ is, and how different elements of style can either help or hinder your communication.
  • To provide examples of how communication style was beneficial for or detrimental to a communication.

When you are having a conversation with someone or listening to them speak, how much do elements like their tone of voice and body language impact your level of interest as well as your interpretation of what they are saying? A lot! This holds true for science communication. Specifically, there are two key elements to your message: the substance (i.e., the objective components that we have discussed thus far) and the style. Style is the subjective component of the message. It is the one most often ignored by communicators, but it can be more important than substance when it comes to engaging an audience. Below we look into some elements that you can use to develop the style aspect of your messaging.

Harnessing the power of emotion

If you are smart about building emotion into your message you will significantly increase your reach and impact. Randy Olson (scientist turned filmmaker) is the guru in this area. We particularly like his “Four Organs Theory” for mass communication. In a nutshell, he says that there are four ‘organs’ in the human body that can ‘receive’ messaging and each is receptive to a different type of message. The brain responds to facts and knowledge, the heart responds to sincerity, drama and passion, the gut responds to humour, and the ‘lower organs’ (you know what they are!) respond to sex appeal. Olson argues that as you move away from the head and towards the ‘lower’ organs you are able to reach more and more people. That being said, you do need to match the emotion to the content, otherwise your message will fall flat or backfire.


Effective uses of emotion

The BC SPCA’s advertising campaign featuring Sarah McLachlan is one of the best uses of heart-focused messaging out there. While use of humor can be effective as in the British Airways safety video or this Got Milk ad.

A brain and heart are shown connected. The brain represents critical thinking and fact, the heart represents emotional response.
Effective messaging will harness emotions, and can often balance between facts and feeling.


This is a word that is feared by most scientists engaged in communication. This is because spontaneity is usually associated with unpredictability and a lack of control. However, this lack of predictability is exactly why spontaneous events, gestures, and speech are so appealing to humans! Society’s thirst for spontaneity is evidenced by the rise in everything from reality television to social media — our collective obsession with Donald Trump’s spontaneous Twitter rants being a prime example.

That being said, Donald Trump is probably the posterchild for spontaneity gone wrong. So how do you get it right? There are a couple of tools that you can add to your tool belt:

Shift your focus

‘Audiences don’t want to see you act – running through preprogrammed performances that are identical. They want to see you react — taking in what I said to you by other actors and listening to their words — and showing the audiences how they affect you.’ – Randy OlsonIf you are focused on making yourself look good then there is no room for you to be spontaneous. Instead, you need to focus outward — on moving the message forward. How you do this will vary depending on the context. For example, if you are doing an interview or responding to a question from a stakeholder, avoid saying or doing things that will shut down the conversation or make the other person look bad. Instead, try to find a creative way to connect what they are saying to your message. It can often be a matter of just finding a word or phrase (a ‘pearl’) that you can use to keep the conversation flowing.

Internalize your message

Know your message so well that it is just a part of you. If you are having to think too much about what you are going to say you will not be able to be spontaneous. Knowing your core message is what is important — not knowing all the details or facts. Once you trust that you own your message, you need to give yourself permission to ‘go with the flow’ of the medium in which you are communicating. Even if you are not 100% factually correct, people will still ‘get it’.

Be present

Spontaneity is usually a reaction to some external stimulus — a stimulus that you need to be receptive to. For example, if you are giving a media interview, you need to really listen to the questions being asked and not spend that time rehearsing lines in your head. Reacting is engaging, acting is fake and annoying.

Don’t be so literal minded — Randy Olson

This is another element of style that Randy Olson really has down pat. He has identified that there is a spectrum of messaging styles ‘from boringly blunt to incomprehensively elusive.’ Scientists tend towards the former (just pound people with the facts) while we personally feel that modern art exemplifies the latter (is there anyone who knows what Damien Hirst is trying to tell us). Advertisers, on the other hand, are in the business of finding the perfect balance.

Basically, you need to think about developing a style that will catch and hold people’s attention — something that is hard to do on either end of the spectrum.


The Clio Awards

If you want to see some great examples of non-literal messaging, look at the recipients of the 2019 Clio awards for outstanding advertising. Just think about how the impact of those ads would have changed if they had simply described their products. Sure, they probably could have added more information using a more literal style, but I think you can agree that they got their point across.


Arouse and Fulfill – Randy Olson

This is a great mantra for life in general, but one that particularly comes in handy when it comes to communication. (It is also called ‘motivate then educate’ but that is not as catchy.) Basically, it is one way to combine style and substance to get your message across. You start your communication with something interesting, flashy, funny, entertaining, emotional, etc. that will catch your audience’s attention and then you fulfill or satisfy their interest with the substance. This can be done within a communication (i.e., by starting off a written communication with a compelling anecdote) or by combining communications (i.e., a promotional film that directs people to an educational website).



White Coat Black Art…of liability?

We find CBC’s house doctor, Dr. Peter Lin to be so, so, so likable and we think it is because he manages to be an expert without being condescending. Google him and listen to some of the clips of him on the radio.

Can you think of someone that really, really grates on you? Maybe it is a relative, a co-worker, a TV personality, or a politician. Now imagine they tell you something like “You should really be taking this multivitamin”. What would you be thinking and feeling? Now imaging that your best friend or spouse says the same thing, would your reaction be different? Probably.

This is all about likability. If people don’t like you they probably will not listen to you. The good news is that you can learn to be likable, because most of the major predictors of likability are behavioural.

Here are some tips and tricks:

Don’t be condescending

If your verbal or non-verbal communication comes across as arrogant in any way, then that is going to be a huge turn off. This might seem obvious but it can be very tricky to balance conveying your expertise without acting like you’re superior to your audience.

Don’t take the bait

I often tell my 5-year-old ‘The only person that you can control is yourself’. And the ability to exhibit self-control is a highly likable trait. You will undoubtedly encounter detractors during your career and your impulse will be to attack them using your preferred weapons of verbal destruction — sarcasm, anger, defensiveness, whatever. Whatever you feel like doing in the heat of the moment, you should probably do the opposite. Can you make a joke? Can you exhibit empathy to their point of view? If you can completely change the tone of the interchange then you will come off as very likeable…maybe even to your opponent.

Check your negativity at the door

Let’s face it, science education is essentially systematic training in negativity. This perspective is rooted the moment we learn about hypothesis testing (i.e., your sole goal in life is to systematically falsify and reject a never ending series of null hypotheses). Negativity works very well for the scientific process but can be very unlikable in the realm of communication. For your audience, a good rant can be engaging, but it is sort of like a big cupcake with lot of icing — ‘You meet scientists who have lost control of this negating approach to the world and seem to sit and stew in their overly critical festering juices of negativity, which can reduce down to a thick, gooey paste of cynicism.’ – Randy Olsonthey might enjoy the decadent, guilty pleasure of the first one, but being forced to consume them over and over again will probably result in nausea and vomiting. This does not mean that you should abandon the critical side of your nature. Too much positivity can also be annoying. Rather, it means that, where possible, you should try to weave positivity into your message. It is a strong motivator for people to do something.  Additionally, creating a balance between the positive and the negative can provide texture and interest to a communication.


Think about the impact behind the tone of these two statements regarding vaccine hesitancy:

“There are people out there who are worried about vaccine safety. These fears are a result of propaganda and misinformation stemming from a fraudulent study. This is resulting in decreased vaccination rates that make children vulnerable to potentially life-threatening diseases. It is difficult to believe that Canadians would choose to not vaccinate their children when there are so many kids who are dying overseas because their parents are not able to access vaccines.”

“There are people out there who are worried about vaccine safety. This is completely understandable. All parents want to keep their kids safe. The good news is that all the scientific evidence shows that vaccines are very, very safe and very, very good at protecting children from a number of diseases. The better news is that all Canadian children have free access to vaccines, so vaccination is something that all Canadian parents can do to protect their children.”

Talk less and listen more

When you think about the mythologic gurus who people seek out to gain some profound knowledge — are they the types to run off at the mouth? No way! Think of Yoda or Gandalf. They sit there in silence deeply absorbing all the information from the world around them and then, after a loaded pause they come up with some profound and extremely concise comment that provides enlightenment. When Yoda talks, people listen. There must be something to this, otherwise how could a diminutive green humanoid with dopey ears and bizarre sentence structure become a paragon of wisdom in our collective social consciousness?

Find your own voice

Scientists are trained to write in a very sterile, cerebral, and impersonal manner. But this style is intensely unlikeable outside of scientific journals (and often in science journals as well). Humans connect to other humans and the good news is that, even though you are a scientist, you are, in fact, also a human. You need to find a way to bring personality and humanity into your communication, but do this in a way that is comfortable and authentic to you.


Takeaway Tweet

“It is hard to communicate from the Academic Ivory Tower. Want to climb back down? Here are a few tips: do not be condescending (use less jargon), highlight the positive (use tone), and let your personality shine (use humour). #LeaveTheIvoryTower #riskcom”

– Nilou Ghaseminejad-Tafreshi

Key Takeaways

  • Communication style will determine how people receive your message, for that reason your communications plan cannot rely on substance alone.
  • Good and effective communication style requires you to forgo some of the stodgy and sterile characteristics that make for good science. Things like spontaneity and likeability go a long way.

Media Attributions


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The Mission, the Message, and the Medium Copyright © by Chelsea Himsworth, Kaylee Byers, and Jennifer Gardy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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