A Breath of Fresh Air to Escape the Communication Rut

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Beyond the Sage on the Stage provides practical, evidence-based communication lessons and debunks often-repeated communication myths. Read the full blog post by author S.L. Seethaler, here.

“You know it’s love when it clicks.  Buckle up.” “Texting and driving?  Say it: I’m the problem.  It’s me.”   “Camp in the woods not the left lane.”  “Drive hammered.  Get nailed.”    “Get your head out of your apps.”  “Visiting In-laws?  Slow down.  Get there late.”  You may have chuckled over electronic traffic signs with messages like these but who would have expected a hubbub over them?

Photo by Business Insider.

The recent news that the U.S. Federal Highway Administration would ban traffic signs with humor, double meanings and popular culture references by 2026 sparked conversation, along with some eyerolling, across the political spectrum.  Reaction to the adoption of the 11th edition Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways was a rare collective moment of communication about communication. 

Communication backfires in the 2020s have the alarming frequency of car backfires in the disco era, making the rarity of communication about communication puzzling.  Also puzzling is the prevailing view of communication as a “soft skill,” typically absent from the curriculum at all levels, including in health, science and technical degree programs whose graduates must communicate with diverse audience about complex, potentially contentious, topics. 

The thinking goes, it just takes practice, like a craft.  Effective communicators are artisans, but excelling at a craft takes more than practice.  It takes specialized skills and knowledge.  An artisan’s creative process blends art with science, be it the physics of light, chemistry of pigments, engineering of materials or mathematics of nature.  The craft of communication is the most difficult craft of all, with the highest stakes.  Yet, little opportunity exists to learn the science of the craft.

Perfecting the craft.

Communication guidance can bear more resemblance to a collection of highway sign slogans than to a reliable map for navigating the realities of a challenging landscape.  Research across disciplines is rife with findings at odds with intuition about what makes communication effective.  Advice that ignores the research is too generic to be helpful, or it is helpful in one context but spectacularly wrong in another.  It is time to steer past the slogans.

A familiar example is the seemingly sensible advice dispensed for handling everything from road rage to stage fright, “take a deep breath.”  Many people find to their dismay that it does not work.  Instead of calming their nerves, inhaling and exhaling deeply exacerbates their shakiness, brain fog and breathlessness.  Desperately clinging to the advice can drive the anxiety symptoms to their extreme and even trigger a panic attack.  A prolonged or robust exhalation is particularly counterproductive, but insight into the physiology and biochemistry of respiration can readily get things back on track. 

The premise of the slogan is that taking in more oxygen reduces anxiety symptoms.  If you hold your breath or speak rapidly without pausing for air, a deep breath is the elixir you need.  Usually, however, the body’s fight-or-flight response actually boosts respiration rate, automatically increasing oxygen uptake.  The hitch is that this natural stress response simultaneously depletes carbon dioxide, which changes the pH of the blood.  Hemoglobin responds by shapeshifting and hoarding oxygen, instead of sharing it with your increasingly foggy brain cells.

Drive in the wrong direction and you probably will not get to where you want to go.  The strategy of focusing on oxygen intake when the trouble is carbon dioxide exhaust could be a metaphor for all the ways our communication approaches can be well-meaning but wrong-headed.  Peer-reviewed scholarship is a rich source of relevant insights about effective communication, but the quest through all that theory and domain-specific terminology is akin to driving many lonely miles to stumble on, “Drive like the person your dog thinks you are.”

I wrote Beyond the Sage on the Stage: Communicating Science and Contemporary Issues Effectively (with a bit of inspiration from my own dog) to provide a road map for anyone who communicates about substantive topics—researchers, students, educators, health professionals, journalists, parents and changemakers of all kinds.  The book took half a century in dog years to write and draws on my much longer career journey from the physical and life sciences to designing education programs to teaching research communications.

The terrain covered includes language, visuals, metaphors and analogies, story structure, non-verbal communication, the physical and psychological underpinnings of emotion, empathy and trust, and how to support reasoning about challenging concepts, data, tradeoffs and uncertainty.  It debunks myths about debunking myths, and it catalogs the many kinds of communication backfires and provides practical strategies for preventing each. 

Mapping the terrain.

The guidance is rooted in scholarship, but the book is accessible wherever you are on your communication journey, whether you are starting out or in need of a tune-up after one-hundred thousand miles.  My hope is that the ride it takes you on will be a though-provoking one but also a joyful one, along a road dotted with humor.

Speaking of a “road dotted with humor,” turns out those funny highway messages are not being banned after all.  That news inspired—you guessed it—a sign about the policy about the signs, “Feds back off—Ha Ha. On Again.”

Learn more about Beyond the Sage on the Stage by S. L. Seethaler, here.

Also by S.L. Seethaler for The Conversation: Messages can trigger the opposite of their desired effect − but you can avoid communication that backfires


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