Don’t Be Such A Scientist! An Interview with Randy Olson

Don't be such a scientistAs scientists, we should constantly strive to improve our communication skills.  We could spend our entire career hoping to master the art on our own through trial-and-error.  Or, we could just learn from great storytellers – and what place communicates a story better than Hollywood?  What if a tenured professor actually left their job to go to Hollywood to learn how to communicate and then came back to share everything they learned?  But that’s probably never happened – or has it?…

Enter Dr. Randy Olson, author of Don’t Be Such A Scientist! The book is not a shameless self-promoting biography about all of the really cool stars he’s met.  Rather, it’s a roadmap for becoming a better communicator, based on many lessons learned – the hard way – in Hollywood.

We recently spoke to Dr. Olson about his experience, the book and how he survived being a coffee-runner at age 38…

BenchFly: Your career path goes Harvard graduate student, University of New Hampshire tenured faculty, University of Southern California film school- not exactly your traditional academic path.  Was the change of careers sudden, or something you had been contemplating for years?

Randy Olson: Well, I’ll tell you one thing – I finished the book last spring and began getting completed copies to a few friends to read.  One of my best old friends – when I was 18 years old he and I were roommates in Puerto Rico working on an oceanographic project – when he read the book, he said “I just gotta remind you in 1974 you were saying a lot of these same things” and it was kind of a shock to me. I think of it as “in 30 years of being around scientists, I’ve learned all of this, but it was really there from day one when I first started taking science courses. I didn’t have any proclivity towards science in my upbringing junior high/high school.  The one thing I did have was total and complete obsession with the oceans.  In fact, I thought I might want to do underwater archeology.  Then I went off to college – started as an economics major – and got onto this oceanographic project and it locked me into it.  I came back and then started into the world of science but really previous to that I’d gotten a D in high school biology.

So even in freshman economics classes, you were picking up on the very distinct communication styles between business and science. However, you never could have written this book without the credibility of having gone down the entire scientific path.

A very super-duper important point with the book is that from the outset one of the editors said “alright, we’ve got to answer a question – is this book about ‘you scientists’ or ‘us scientists’?”  Very clearly, it’s about us scientists. What I tell in there are all stories about years spent trying to reprogram myself as a non-scientist, but my science voice is with me here and now for there rest of time. It’s like a fingerprint – you really can’t get rid of it.  Whether its genes or environment, who knows, but by the time you’ve done a PhD you’ve gone down a developmental path that you can’t go back on.

It’s an interesting thing.  Several journalists – one in particular at USA Today – interviewed me… and said “everything you put in this book we all know.  It’s been said by all of us.  The only difference is that you’re the first guy with a PhD in science to really say it forcefully like this.  We’re all hoping they’ll finally listen to you.  Lord knows they’ve never listened to any of us.”  That’s kind of true, scientists are so dismissive of communication.

In your book, you describe the battle between “substance” and “style”, where style includes elements like humor, emotion and entertainment. Our standard mechanisms of communication are very formulaic- papers are written in a certain way, talks are given in a certain way, even questions are asked in a certain way.  We generally leave style out, partially because of the perception that style comes at the expense of accuracy.  Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?

As I said in the book “I will never, ever endorse the idea of striving for anything less than 100% accuracy.”  I think the traditional approach to this stuff is that you’re given maybe 120 units of energy with which to deal with communication out of your total “energy budget.” And the typical scientist puts 100 units into being accurate and the extra 20 they put into something else – like making it interesting.  What I’m suggesting is that the time has come to allocate 200 units to communication- still put the 100 units towards accuracy and now put 100 units in to making it interesting as well.  So where does that come from in your net energy budget? It comes from your overall science budget.  So if you’ve got 1000 units for doing the work for your entire profession, you now need to put 100 into communicating accurately and 100 towards communicating interestingly and only 800 into doing research, instead of 880 into research – if that makes any sense.  It’s an allocation in your net budget – putting more into communication recognizing that more effort needs to go into this other dimension of making it interesting – and it has to be done not at the expense of accuracy…

So not only are they not mutually exclusive, we need to spend more time learning to communicate in a more engaging style.

It’s about trying to do two things at once. Sort of. And that is not easy at all- you know, walking and chewing gum.  As I talked about in the book, I came to the realization that there is this language of science and, by convention, the language of science does not include humor and emotion- these irrational elements… And you begin to realize…it’s incredibly valuable because it opens up the fluency of communication.  So long as we all agree to keep everything in our heads, we end up with a lot less ego battles and things like that.  It is amazing to me the comparison of graduate school in science- where you wrote manuscripts, gave them to each other and critiqued the hell out of them and nobody ever wanted to kill each other- vs. film school where people wrote their personal stories and we’d read them in class and somebody’d say something snide and people would really want to pull out a gun and shoot each other. And it’s because those personal essays involved their ego and their emotions and their humor.  For starters, humor is such an individual and personal thing- it’s just grasping that fundamental divide and realizing it’s not an evil thing that science doesn’t involve humor and emotion.  It’s largely a functional thing to make the profession work so much more smoothly than if you did have people weaving all of their ego and emotion and humor into their scientific talks and things start to go haywire because then you can’t even communicate and collaborate on stuff.

As scientists, we’re hardwired to be critical.  We hear an idea and we immediately start analyzing all of the reasons it won’t work.  Critical thinking makes great scientists, but not necessarily great communicators.

I touch on that as well.  In the end, I finally reveal where the title came from – my ex-wife.  That really is the case.  There were so many instances where I’d slip into my scientist mind in terms of analyzing something and she’d say “c’mon don’t be such a scientist!  Relax, let it go.  You’re not in the office anymore!”  ‘Cause it is an entire mindset to sit there saying “the reason this is not going to work is because of this, that and the other thing…” It’s just so entirely negating.  It’s just tiresome.   Having been here in Hollywood for 20 years, I’ve experienced it and seen it and I talk about it in the book.  I’m the “Randy” of the group…. In a social way at times I could sense it.  I just kind of got the feeling that a bunch of my filmmaker friends were like “lets put together a group to watch a movie and discuss it but let’s not bring Randy along because he’s just going to rip this thing to shreds”.

In your scientific career, you were a tenured professor – a milestone that very few people achieve.  Then you jumped back to the bottom of the totem pole – starting at square one in acting class.  Were there ever times where you wanted to say “Do you know who I am?!” – even though it probably carries no weight in Hollywood.

Exactly.  The first summer I was in film school I worked on this Patrick Swayze movie called Three Wishes and I worked with a producer as an assistant and I was 38 years old and was a tenured professor and my job was basically getting coffee for all these losers as they sit around.  But it doesn’t matter in Hollywood and I just loved it.  There was something very Zen about being humiliated like that.  Mostly I put up with it to a point, but there’s always a bottom level.  For me, I always had this voice going around my head telling me that I didn’t come to Hollywood to be a part of the machine, but to have fun and learn.

It’s a unique book only because, as you mentioned, nobody’s every done this before.  There’s never been a tenured scientist who at age 38, when most people feel like their career is already done and over with, has done exactly what you said – thrown it all in the junk heap and gone back to square one and sat there and been humiliated among 22 year-olds. In film school, it was really funny, the second year I got chosen as one of the four directors in a class of 50 students.  We end up getting to do our special movies and they brought in a really famous movie director from somewhere and they would be like your own private tutor.  The semester they did it for me, they brought in this guy named Arturo Ripstein who is a really famous Mexican director.  He’s this funny little short stumpy guy who was probably in his late 50’s or so and was such a great guy.  And he’d sit there in our entire class and marvel.  He would say, “When I walk through Mexico City, the crowds part.  Everyone knows me in Mexico city, I’m famous, you know… But I stand around USC cinema school and people shove me out of the way – I’m treated like dirt here.” I’d say to him “I know what it’s like buddy!  People used to respect me, and here I am a piece of dirt in Hollywood- welcome to the process.”

Do you feel the skills you developed as a scientist helped you at all in Hollywood?

It did give me an analytical approach that helped me make sense of so much of this stuff and there are so many different parts. I mean one of the things – I wish I had a whole lifetime to devote to this… I honestly think my knowledge and understanding of evolution and natural selection and how those things work and how change works enabled me to understand a lot about the Hollywood system and why it’s hard to come in from so far from the outside with ideas that are so radical and actually make them catch fire in the mainstream.  It can happen once in a blue moon, but in general the odds are very slim.  So I started to slowly accept over the years that my ideas are just outside the bell curve and therefore it’s a longer process so I’ve had to be very, very patient and know it’s a long journey.

That’s why the book is incredibly gratifying now.  Throughout the last 15 years, I went through some very hard times – particularly in the late 90s – and I wondered whether I really was just going to die in obscurity – not amounting to anything after taking this entire life gamble tossing in tenure.  There were a few years there where it was entirely possible.  Had I been dealt one piece of bad luck during those years, it definitely would have happened. I had no money and was basically just scraping by.  Fortunately, things worked out for me over the years and I survived all of the madness and insanity.  Furthermore, I never got caught in a giant pile-up on the 101 or anything like that or any of the other hazards of living out here…so I dodged all of those bullets and now the book is the grand synthesis.

If you were going to sit down with a scientist and give them three points they can start to work on today- baby steps towards being a better communicator- what would they be?

Very simple.  Number one – arouse and fulfill.  That’s the overall simplest little thing to come out of the book that is such a rule of thumb and you have to install that in yourself.  Arouse and fulfill every time you’re looking to communicate. The book is really focused on reaching the general audience.  It’s relatively easy communicating with your peers.  Before you start trying to fulfill anyone on anything – what have you done to arouse them?  Go ahead and think about it like sex – before you start to stick the thing in, have you done any bit of foreplay?  Scientists being so literal minded think “why would I want to waste time on foreplay?  What I want is down here I’m going for it right now!”  Well it’s not going to work.  So that’s kind of the gist of it. I hate to be quoted on that way of looking at it, but it really does boil down to that simple of a thing.

Number two – tell a good story.  Those two things are entwined but you have to understand how important story-telling in today’s era and you have to know that it’s an enormous undertaking in learning how you tell a good story.  You have to digest what I talk about.  I got all the way through film school, directed a low-budget comedy movie that sucked and did all these other things and I never grasped the power of storytelling until I did my own movie that was tripped up by not being a good story. Then I finally made the breakthrough and saw the magic of storytelling and from then on I’ve been a zealot about it.  Holy moly, if you can be lucky enough to find story structure within what you’re doing, it is pure magic.  But it takes a lot of time and energy and resources.

And number three – don’t tell us what you’re doing, show us. And that is such a counter-intuitive process for academics because academics are so accustomed to telling and lecturing and it’s good enough.  But the general public doesn’t want to be told, they want to be shown.  It winds back to the first thing – arouse and fulfill.

Those are the three things that pop into my mind, but each of those is a whole lifetime worth of learning to really grasp them.



Randy Olson is a “scientist-turned-filmmaker.”  In the early 1990’s his interests shifted from telling stories OF science to telling stories ABOUT science.  In 1994 he made his career transition, resigned from his professorship moved to Hollywood, and entered film school at the University of Southern California.  In the years since, he has written and directed a series of short and feature films including “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus” and “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy.”

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11 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. screen writer

    wrote on December 12, 2009 at 1:08 am

    Firstly I support what Dr Olson is doing and I can relate since I am trying to transition from science and pursue screenwriting. Regarding better communcation with laypersons…Seems to be a bit of a paradox here..frankly I think that scientists get power ego trip from being esoteric..why do you think they're always inventing something called jargon? The other assumption is that "the scientist" in every case really has something to say. Really? Maybe if the message was more relevant to laypersons, it wouldn't be so tough to convey?? I think we should also begin to question what science is up to and if it is truly advancing. A biotech company I knew of spent $100 million in 4 years employing 150 Ph.D.'s and they produced absolutely nothing, no product….meanwhile we don't have cures for many of the world's major diseases…only treatments… How convenient. Message/communication is important, but I see communication, in the reverse (public policy-scientist) to be just as critical. The goals of medical science need to be examined very closely. but who is doing this???

  2. dayman

    wrote on December 14, 2009 at 4:21 pm

    All fields have jargon, as a way to make communication inside the field easier as it allows your colleagues to know exactly what you are talking about, and often you forget that others don't know it.

    For comparisons sake, I am not a middle eastern politics expert, but I have a friend who is. He uses lots of words that I have no idea what he is talking about, and sometimes he does it just to show off, but I don't think the terms were originally generated to obsfucate. Also, because I don't understand it doesn't mean that it is irrelevant, it means that I lack the backround to understand it . There is a ton of books, blogs, articles, TV shows, and people out there to allow me to understand it, but it would require an effort on my part to take the time to learn it.

    As for some biotech's not producing anything, it happens in all fields because discovering new stuff is hard. And expensive. As a society we seem to be willing to put the money in science because it's breakthroughs can improve the lives of the most people. Many non-scientists argue that antiseptics were the greatest discovery for all of humanity after the wheel and fire, all three of which are science.

    There is one statement you made that I could not agree more with: "Message/communication is important…" We do need scientific spokespeople to explain things, but we also need societies that have the scientific background to understand it. In America, at least, many students become dismissive of science and math because it is difficult and requires learning and memorizing tenants in order to understand and appreciate it. If you lack those fundamentals, communication is never going to happen because one side has its fingers in its ears.

    Really it boils down to: Why do you think science is so different than other fields? Lawyers have jargon. Business people use money for risky things that often don't work because they are new. Government workers often cannot adequately explain their policies. These are all symptoms of specialization, and without it there would be very little progress unfortunately.

  3. dayman

    wrote on December 14, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    Also, this:

  4. Josie

    wrote on December 14, 2009 at 6:17 pm

    Are you suggesting that scientists deliberately miscommunicate in order to hide the fact that they're not making any progress, or something more sinister like coming up with expensive treatments and no cures?…. interesting point.
    I think even the research that is worthy of reporting is often miscommunicated, or communicated poorly … and I think that often (some) scientists don't really worry that they're poor communicators because of the power trip you mention. I've met a few megalomaniac scientists who would assume that people don't understand not because of their poor communication, but because they're just not quite smart enough to get it. Maybe I'm cynic???

  5. @jen_leslie

    wrote on December 15, 2009 at 8:24 pm

    I found Olson's book to a bit of all the things he preaches against. It's sort of disorganized, rambles on, really negative and critical… guess the scientist habit is hard to kick

  6. screen writer

    wrote on December 17, 2009 at 1:35 am

    I think you can talk about comparisons between communication in science and other fields, like business, but my point was really about science and basically what I think science is up to. To answer your question, I would say that the issues here about science communication are far more real and pressing than what I might say are business or even legal decisions/issues, at least in the context of fundamentally helping society and making forward progress. Wall street will NOT help us fight the next plague, its up to the scientists and science minded people to do this. My point is that people need to wake up and also pay attention to what the scientists are up to, as opposed to just delving at the surface, and taking what they see on t.v. about science all for granted. Its better for all.

  7. screen writer

    wrote on December 17, 2009 at 1:37 am

    Consider what is at stake, in the development of a cure for a major illness, or a class of diseases like DNA viruses. The point is not that obfuscation happens only in science, it is that it has the potential for the most damage in science! This is becuase bad science has a ripple effect into the future. And yes money is wasted in other fields too, but I would argue that money wasted in basic science is also the most damaging, long term. A wrong turn in the race for a cure means not only lost time, but intangible problems, non development of other techniques, technologies etc. So those are the differences I see. So in that context I would say the $100 million failed biotech is bigger failure than what it appears, and its just a symptom of something deeper.

  8. screen writer

    wrote on December 17, 2009 at 6:58 am

    I think the current market encourages treatments as opposed to cures. This is becaues they are cheaper to develop and they have lower risk, but are also hugely profitable. No one has to deliberately squelch anything. That's free market, it doesn't take risks unless its forced to, not if the "other guy" isn't. I think that scientists would adamantly defend this position..of not finding cures by using the science, restating the difficulty faced etc. but in reality they might admit that its very easy to just go to the lab and do research and still get the same, (but less risk of failure). I see a vacuum of leadership from top down, but also apathy. Government labs aren't motivated, not enough. Companies aren't motivated, not when "they're doing all they can". Influenza vaccines are big $. 10,000 deaths from influenza, sitll no antiviral that work. The difference in effort/motivation has to be very big to get the cure, instead of the treatment. It is physically possible, is it not? that I believe.

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