FORCE11 Conference Keynotes

This week I attended the FORCE11 Conference in Portland, Oregon. I know what you are thinking…and no, this was not a conference where I learned about midi-chlorians and “The Force” from the Star Wars universe.

FORCE is an acronym for “The Future Of Research Communications and E-Scholarship.” FORCE11 is a community of scholars, librarians, archivists, publishers and research funders that has arisen organically to help facilitate the change toward improved knowledge creation and sharing. It can really be described as a movement people interested in furthering the goals stated in the FORCE11 Manifesto. Read all about it here:

Here are key takeaways from three of the keynotes


Steven Pinker
Department of Psychology, Harvard University

Pinker asked, “Why is so much communication so ineffective? Do people communicate badly on purpose, to bamboozle their readers with highfalutin gobbledygook? Is communication being corrupted by texting and social media?”

Pinker argued that “the chief impediment to clarity is a psychological phenomenon called the Curse of Knowledge—the difficulty we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something we know.”

Wait, let me say that again, but slower: the Curse of Knowledge is the difficulty we all have in imagining what it’s like not to know something we know. So, it is the difficulty that comes with relating to the reader, who does not have your knowledge, in order to communicate your message effectively. This is incredibly difficult to do, but here are snapshots of a few slides from Pinker’s presentation:

Advice: Avoid the “Curse of Knowledge” by imagining the reader

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Advice: Avoid clichés like the plague

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Advice: Help the reader see objective reality


From XKCD, consider your own land-grant university website.

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Cesar A. Hidalgo
Associate Professor, The MIT Media Lab, MIT

As an Extension professional your ability to transform data into narratives is now essential to your work.

Transforming data into narratives is not easy because crafting an empirically valid story is challenging.

The tools available to visualize and analyze data are based on outdated design paradigms that require users to spend vast amounts of time on tasks that can now be automated.

Hidalgo demos a series of data visualization engines he created with his team at MIT that can help speed up your ability to transform data into narratives.

Homework: Click on all three of these links and tanker around with them (you will learn and find these tools fascinating)

  • – Think of this tool like the 2nd floor of IKEA, the product outside of the box on display
  • – Visualize big data imports and exports by country
  •– Enter your Gmail account account and get a visual of your social graph based on the conversations you have with your contacts over time. Described as a people-centric view of your gmail life.

Synopsis: Instead of making a report/chart why not make a tool that makes the report…or a tool that makes a tool that makes a chart.


Christie Nicholson

Why is it hard to communicate the work we do? Nicholson taught that in order to make your message stick, you have to be passionate when explaining your work. Are you?

Key takeaways from this keynote:

  1. Your goal is to make your audience think, feel, or do something
  2. People are inherently curious; it’s up to us to give them information they’re already searching for

Two Key Things About Communication

1. Know your audience

  • Who is their audience?
  • Who do they answer to?
  • What do they want out of this?

2. Know your goal

  • De-risk yourself
  • What will make them look good?
  • They need to think, feel, and do something

Packaging your message: The power of stories is massive. Always use:

  • Everyday language, watch the jargon
  • Examples, analogies, comparisons
  • Visual language, props, hands
  • Tell a story, use an anecdote


Explaining your science to the public is similar to explaining the game of baseball to people who have never heard of it.

Think of a message you are trying to communicate. What challenges do you have communicating your science?

Activity: Translate Baseball jargon


Communication is when “You know they get it.” Here’s more advice:

  • You have to be passionate about the explanation
  • Create videos and animations
  • Find common ground
  • Don’t forget the audience. When you know the audience you can decide what to leave in and what to leave out
  • The public is not brave enough to admit that that don’t know about science
  • Make no assumptions, give the public the information..plainly, simply, clearly
  • Always spell out the acronyms – NAEPSDP, NEAFCS, NAE4-HA, NACAA
  • Don’t assume anyone knows what “Extension” is
  • Distill the information with clarity
  • The public is curious, it’s on us (scientists) to give


Activity: A people, talk about yourself, what you like, what you don’t like. Endless string of “I” statements for 1 minute. B people, just listen.

Basics of Distilling (one sentence answers to each question)

  • What is the practical point?
  • What makes this awesome?
  • What should we care now?

Activity: Time Traveler. A people you’re a time traveler from the 16th century. B people run into them. Start talking and B gets a phone call. Explain what a phone is without A person thinking you are witch.

How to Package the Message

  • The power of stories is massive, use:
  • Everyday language, watch the jargon
  • Examples, analogies, comparisons
  • Visual language, props, hands
  • Tell a story, use an anecdote

Homework: Pay attention to when you are engaged and when you are not…answer the why? Why were you engaged? What was the difference?

Science is a story of mystery to be solved.

The public is your college roommate: A person as smart and curious as you, but their expertise is in another field.

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