My Facebook feed is filling with conversations about signs for the March for Science. This weekend scientists and their non-scientist allies (not that there’s anything wrong with being a scientist) will gather in Washington and in cities around the U.S. in support of federal funding for scientific research, policy based on scientific evidence, and science itself. A lot of those people will be carrying signs. A lot of thought is going into those signs (and given that the sign makers are scientists we are talking a lot of thought). People want to carry signs that are clever, funny, and make a pointed point (and that may even be poignant).
Clever signs can become internet sensations (among people who follow signs and marches). Signs, like fezzes, are cool. Signs do not, however, impact policy. I have worked in Congressional offices that were marched on by people with signs. Once a U.S. Representative for whom I worked insisted we walk through a mob of protesters (many of whom had signs), and one of my enduring memories is standing at the top of the steps of the U.S. Capitol looking out at a sea of demonstrators behind police barricades on the day of the House vote to impeach President Clinton. At no point did I say to my boss, “look, there’s a clever sign, maybe we should reconsider your vote.”
But signs can help make a point. By getting on the news, signs can help shape or reinforce narratives. There may be a marginal agenda-setting or framing advantage to a good sign. There is certainly no disadvantage to having a sign. If you want to make a sign that advances your goal of advancing science, there are a few things to bear in mind:
First, it’s not about you.
“I am a pediatric neurologist and have been thinking of poster designs that are personal to me about ignoring science. Came up with “Want SSPE? Subacute Sclerosing Pan Encephalitis (picture of affected brain). Call me for a delayed vaccination schedule today!”
Too pointed? Wanted something that was not too vague..”
– Facebook post
Aristotle noted that there are three parts of a speech: the speaker, the subject, and the audience — and the audience is the most important. If policymakers did things important to you, you wouldn’t have to march to get them to do things important to you (that’s one reason there are no marches for happy hours or naps). Make signs that say things that matter (and make sense) to those you need to persuade. You are not the audience for your sign, the person you are waving at is the audience.
Second, people you need to reach aren’t stupid.
“Nothing can be too pointed, remember you are dealing with brain-dead, zombie-like, limited-intellect folks that for generations have grown up with a distain for “educated elites”. It’s so inbred now that raining bricks would be ignored.”
– A reply to the above post
There are a lot of really really smart people working in Washington. A lot of them have graduate degrees from top universities (which is to say they are educated elites). Those who make decisions about how much federal money to spend on science may not agree with you, but that doesn’t make them dolts. And even if they are brain dead falling brick ignorers, treating them as such isn’t a terribly effective communications strategy. Treating people you’re trying to persuade with respect makes it much more likely you will succeed, and it’s the right thing to do.
Third, clearly state a clear point.
“What is the message we really want to get across? What is the March for? It’s about preventing funding cuts for scientific research of all kinds. Short and simple and don’t lose the message .”
– Another reply to the Facebook post
Say simply simply what you want to say (or, use a rule of thumb from comedy, if you have to explain the joke it isn’t funny). Try things like –
Science Saves Lives
Science = Jobs
These aren’t funny or clever or puns. No one will nod knowingly and admire your wit. They aren’t inside jokes you can re-tell at the faculty club or grad student bar. You won’t become a meme. But you will make your point, clearly and directly, in ways that those whom you need to persuade may find compelling.