Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Sanjay Gupta, MD on Effective Communication: “You do these things because you hope they make a difference”

By Maya Vemuri, bilingual information specialist at JBS International and former communications intern for the Office of Communications and Public Liaison at the National Institute on Aging

Recently, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, acclaimed neurosurgeon, university professor, and medical correspondent for CNN, led a talk on the subject of medicine and the media at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. Although Dr. Gupta is much admired for his skill in the field of medicine, his talents in the area of journalism and media have also earned him much praise and attention from the public, worldwide. For this reason, Dr. Gupta has proven to not only be an example for those in the medical field, but those in the area of communications, as well.

Throughout the talk, Dr. Gupta emphasized the significant role that communications has in influencing people. He likened the worlds of medicine and media, stating that they are both ways to educate people, there is a tremendous impact to both, and credibility is a big part in both. He stressed how this influence can be especially important when communicators are dealing with facts, as the manner in which a communicator presents such an issue can do a great deal to either reassure or frighten the public- depending on how the material is presented. “You do these things because you hope they make a difference,” he said, emphasizing the enormous influence on the public that a communicator can have. Most of all, Dr. Gupta called attention to the importance of creating knowledge through skillful use of communication.

Reaching one’s audience can be, as Dr. Gupta pointed out, tricky at times, but essential in getting one’s message out. Some of the tips for effective reporting he shared were:

  • Make sure you use the right language. Know who your audience is, and don’t go over their heads. If you keep the language simple, you won’t lose any of the people you are trying to reach.
  • Make sure there is a takeaway lesson. You want your audience to feel drawn in by the material you are presenting. When they finish listening to your presentation or reading a report you have written, it is important that they feel it was worth their time.
  • Reports have to be short. Reporting, especially within the scientific field, is difficult, mainly because media is “shrinking”. Social media platforms like Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook urge users to share messages in short formats, so often times, you will have to catch the attention of your audience in a few short phrases to get them to read the larger article. 

Dr. Gupta also addressed some questions on important topics in the world of communications. Considering his experience and success as a correspondent, the following ideas Dr. Gupta expressed should certainly be taken by communicators everywhere, regardless of the field they work in:

  • How do you determine what makes a good story? Dr. Gupta’s opinion was that there are three ways you can determine this: if the story affects a large population (in general), if it affects a small population (deeply), or if it has a “gee whiz” quality. If you are still unsure of what makes a “good story”, Dr. Gupta’s recommendation is to go with your gut feeling. Ask yourself if it feels important to you: looking at it as a viewer, not a researcher or scientist, would you be interested? If so, perhaps you should follow it.
  • How has reporting changed? How will it continue to change? Returning to the idea of “shrinking” media, communicators now are often forced to reach out to their audiences through shorter messages, often through social media. Dr. Gupta partially attributes this to shorter attention spans and the barrage of information that exists today. While we don’t know how communication methods will continue to evolve, it appears that it will follow this pattern; thus, conciseness and good word choice are key.
  • Is the desire for knowledge going to be the same in the future? Although the demand for knowledge and the collective IQ of developed nations has increased over time (a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect), it appears to have plateaued recently. Dr. Gupta expressed his fear that the collective IQ of nations such as the U.S. will not only remain at the current level, but indeed, decrease in the future. This could affect the way in which communicators present material, as well as the material that the general public considers “relevant.” For this reason, Dr. Gupta urged communicators to consider the role of influence they have, and try to use their skills to choose topics that would promote an increase in the desire for knowledge again.

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