Synthetic biology can solve many public problems plaguing our communities today. From food insecurity and killer diseases to climate change, synthetic biology is smashing skepticism and showing the world that not only is it possible to disrupt many of these problems right now but also, drastically improve the conditions of our planet and the lives of many living beings sooner rather than later or worse, never.
However, in order to be the game changer we believe it to be, synthetic biology needs to reach mass commercialization and adoption. This means many more people beyond our natural field of influence need to buy into the value of synthetic biology. This process can take some time, roughly 30 years based on trends observed with other innovative technologies in the past. This is problematic. A 30 year gap time is inefficient, unethical, and expensive.
Here’s my plan to accelerate this process: we devise and run a campaign similar to the political and issue-based campaigns we see during election years. The campaign’s goal will be twofold. The first goal is to identify all stakeholders. The second goal is to gather information from these groups and use this data to develop impactful messaging and public narrative.
The ideas I’ll be outlining below were drawn from smart practices acquired from multiple disciplines including public policy, business administration, communication, and psychology. With special credit to Catherine Shaw’s The Campaign Manager, Larry Magid’s presentation on Effective Communications, and Marshall Ganz’s article on Public Narrative.
Step 1: Identify all stakeholders
Stakeholders are the people who will be affected by synthetic biology, particularly by your product. They are not the general public. There are three types – the supporters, oppositions, and neutrals.
The supporters are your proud faithfuls; they have bought into your product and do not need much more convincing. The oppositions are individuals and groups that fall in the extreme end of the spectrum. This means that no matter what you do or say, they will not buy into your product. Finally, the neutrals are those that are undecided – most of your campaign’s time and resources will be spent persuading the minds and hearts of this group.
Unlike a traditional candidate and issue-based campaign, I recommend allocating a moderate amount of time communicating with both the support and opposition groups. Communication with supporters will aim to keep them energized and informed. While time and effort will be spent creating space for tough conversations to be had with the opposing group. The goal is to minimize divisiveness, maximize support, and build bridges wherever possible. With respect to the opposition, listening to and understanding their perspectives will help you identify potential areas of compromise. By creating this space early on in the campaign, you can reduce the amount of time, money and energy spent disagreeing. Instead you can refocus and concentrate these resources toward finding common ground and advancing your cause and product.
Step 2: Connect with stakeholders
Effective Messaging Tells a Story
Now that you know who your target audience is, you can craft your message. An effective message tells a story. Storytelling is a common thread that exist in every culture. The most powerful ones are those that use anecdotes. Do you remember the story of David and Goliath? This story has been told for many generations not to teach us how to use a slingshot, but to show us that a little guy who is resourceful and brave can beat an arrogant, big guy.
Anecdotes will help you connect with your target audience because it humanizes and personalizes your cause and product. They are powerful and memorable because it helps your audience understand your perspective. Anecdotes are also more effective in linking your cause to your target audience faster than presenting unconnected statistics and facts. Lastly, they allow you to borrow other people’s credibility.
When crafting an effective message, remember that it must tell a story that is brief, emotional, relevant, unique and must be repeated.
Here’s an example:
In everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe that change is an opportunity to do something amazing. We challenge the status quo by creating new and better products that are sustainable, accessible, and safe for all. (Insert your product here.)
Public Narrative translates public values into action
Every revolution has a public narrative – a tool that great leadership wields to engage the “heads” and “hearts” of their target audience so that they may act with their “hands”. A public narrative inspires others to take action; to find the courage to take risks, explore uncharted territories, and take on challenges.
A public narrative is divided into three parts – a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. A story of self describes who I am – my values, my experiences, my purpose for getting out of bed in the morning and for working through the wee hours of the night. A story of us is about who we are – our shared values, our shared experiences, and why we do what we do. Finally, a story of now motivates us to take action. To make a choice.
Pres. Barack Obama’s keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 is a perfect example of what a successful public narrative looks like. Many cite this speech as the moment which put Pres. Obama on the political map and on the path to presidency.
Wisdom and agility yields stakeholder support fast
Closing the gap between creation and commercialization is tricky, but not impossible. The ideas presented in this article draw from smart practices learned throughout history from many different disciplines. By recognizing their worth and balancing this with our ability to adapt quickly to our environment, political or otherwise, there’s no doubt in my mind that the synthetic biology community will succeed in organizing and sustaining stakeholder support fast.