The Purple Duck…er, Cow

What is the ecological story you want to tell? Why should people care about the state of the natural world and conservation in general?

These are the questions over which I have been ruminating (cow pun very intended) for the last several months. As I prepare for the first presentation of any consequence pertaining to my master’s research and think about my present and future role in the scientific community, I continually ask myself how I want to portray my research so that it matters to the largest number of people. It is my belief that it is not enough to simply do good science, but that conveying it to a wide array of audiences and truly taking ownership of the inherent storytelling aspect involved in the study of natural history is just as, if not more, important.

Storytelling is an integral component of the human experience. There are basic frameworks that have been used to tell some of the most famous stories throughout history, from Star Wars to The Bible, and every culture throughout the world uses some form of storytelling to pass down their beliefs and ideals. Stories enrich our lives by immersing us in other peoples’ imaginations and experiences. They capture our attention and our emotions, and the true indication of a good story is one that gets people to let their guard down and begin to imagine perspectives and values other than their own. Stories give what you do consequence and allow you to convey the critical point of what’s at stake.

In an example used during a recent workshop I attended on communicating your research, they cited Rachel Carson’s seminal work, “Silent Spring.” Carson knew she had to communicate the severe danger of DDT to the public and to the politicians who could make a difference, but that she couldn’t simply spew bad news at people and expect them to care (side note: the article linked to “DDT” is a super interesting synopsis of Carson’s life and work). Instead of starting her book with a gloomy passage about eggshell thinning, she began it with a fable – one of the world’s oldest forms of storytelling. In the fable, “a grim specter” begins to creep over a picturesque American town and everything begins to change for the worse. This forces the community to adapt and adjust to rid themselves of this blight upon their otherwise perfect community and bring their lives back to normal. This relatively simple tale, which has been replicated in various forms throughout history, connected with people on a very basic level. It brought them closer to the chemical story of DDT, which might otherwise have seemed very foreign and daunting to a layperson. Carson’s book instigated the eventual ban of DDT in the US and left a legacy of conservation that resonated with all Americans, underlining the power of storytelling and the ability of scientists to harness it to captivate audiences.

The title of this post stems from something I heard during one of my many podcast binges on a 5 hour drive to my field site in southern Colorado. In a recent episode of the TED Radio Hour called “How Things Spread,” they feature a talk by Seth Godin, marketing guru and prolific blogger. He gave a TED talk in 2003 about his theory of The Purple Cow. The basic concept is that no one is going to stop on the side of the road to look at a cow. We all see cows all the time and frankly, they’re boring. However, if you happened to be driving along and suddenly saw a purple cow mixed in among the rest, you might be inclined to stop for a closer look. It’s the idea that “in a world where we have too many choices and too little time, the obvious thing to do is just ignore stuff.” We ignore stuff unless it is extraordinary…that is to say, purple.

The importance of conservation storytelling cannot be overstated in today’s modern world of “idea diffusion,” where initiatives and issues are often diluted among the continuous inundation of media streaming towards us from multiple sources. We are so constantly faced with depressing statistics about the state of various species and the quality of the environment that people often become immune to this quotidian coverage. Audiences cannot be expected to approach us, wanting to learn. It is our job as scientists to communicate our research in a novel and interesting way that audiences can understand and appreciate. Whether this takes the form of a lobbyist connecting with credible stakeholders in a constituency in order to give their stance a personalized, human component or an academic creating a podcast and sharing it on their Twitter account, the possibilities for modern storytelling are endless and constantly evolving (side note…my Twitter handle is @caseylovesbirds if you care to follow my sparse updates).

This post may be largely piggy-backing off of Godin’s TED talk and the overview it received in the TED Radio Hour podcast, but I think it has a unique application to biological conservation and scientific advocacy. While the concept of circumventing idea diffusion was originally geared towards businesses and marketing products, it also applies to obtaining and maintaining an audience for important ecological issues about which the general public is largely apathetic. We are, after all, in the business of conservation and business, as they say, is bad.

So how do you get people to notice issues, especially gloomy, depressing stories about the imminent threat of a new invasive species or the precipitous decline of another? Godin argues that you have to go after the obsessive constituents rather than marketing your ideas to the masses. He refers to the Japanese concept of “otaku,” or an obsession extreme enough that people go to great measures to get their obsessive fix. The example he provides is someone who will drive across Japan simply to try a new sushi restaurant, but the first comparison I made was to the birding community’s concept of “twitching.” Many birders I know would not bat an eyelash and driving 12 hours for a Key-West Quail-Dove or a Gray-Crowned Yellowthroat. Birders absolutely have an otaku, and although I may have a significantly biased Facebook feed consisting mostly of birders, I believe it’s the reason they stepped up during the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation (read this one too) and the reason so many of them are so adamant about adding a non-waterfowl species to the national Duck Stamp (Note: this does not reflect my views or opinions on either of these matters). Each story you tell, even if every one of them is a version of the same basic concept, has to cater to your audience’s otaku, regardless of what it is. It has to connect with them on a personal, human level. If we can ascertain what a group’s otaku is, we can follow Seth Godin’s advice and “market to these people because they care. These are the people who are obsessed with something. And when you talk to them, they’ll listen because they like listening. It’s about them. And if you’re lucky, they’ll tell their friends.”

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