Read more, read better? Developing a reading habit with Stephen Cavan, Stephen Krashen and Brad Stulberg

When I teach students for whom English is a second (or foreign) language, they often express a desire to practice orally to help them become fluent as quickly as they can.

Less often, one will ask me what book titles I would recommend; when they do, they usually are interested in books on language skills (e.g. ESL textbooks), not books of fiction or poetry, written in English.

An advocate for reading by second language learners, my colleague (and a great ESL teacher, himself) Steve Cavan has recommended the writing of Dr. Stephen Krashen, an expert in theories of language acquisition and development.

Krashen has published hundreds of books and articles and given more than 500 lectures at universities world-wide to promote the “natural approach” to language teaching. By this he means to encourage students to read recreationally and for teachers like me (and administrators) to ensure that school libraries are well stocked.

Krashen says that “what is good for language development and literacy development is . . . pleasant [to] the acquirer and the teacher.” He has found that time spent free reading is more efficient for developing language skills than the equivalent time spent in traditional instruction.

Reading can (and should) be fun—and can help us learn new languages better.

So many readers and writers find life boring (even or especially in this digital age), when devices can leave us with minds feeling dry, uninspired, even cranky. What Krashen calls the “pleasure path” of reading often lighthearted fiction in a foreign language accelerates our learning of that language.

For instance, Krashen refers to one study in which new immigrants to the US who have progressed very slowly in learning English showed a remarkable spike in progress, due mainly to reading pleasant (potboiler) romance novels, such as the “Sweet Valley High” series. These students were not taking ESL classes at the time.

My colleague, Steve Cavan, has referred his students to free, online ebooks in English on the following site, where classics have been simplified to levels comprehensible to new learners:

Whether we are new to a language or native-speakers, however, reading deeply, what freelance writer and coach Brad Stulberg calls “full engagement in a book,” can be a joyous experience. When people’s attention spans are shortening by the day (or so it seems), Stulberg says that to be a deep reader “is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy.”

In a recent article in “Forbes” magazine, Stulberg argues that getting lost in a book “is good for the mind and spirit,” allows us to understand topics more deeply, to sustain attention for longer periods of time and to enhance our creativity.

Now, whether for non-English readers or the fully fluent, who would argue against all that?

Stulberg recommends six practices that can help us all read more and read better:

(1) Use a hardcopy book. Research shows that we understand and connect ideas better when we read physical (not digital) pages. There are fewer distractions than with digital media and our brains remember better knowledge acquired through “tactile experience.”

(2) Have no digital devices in the room. Even “the sight of these devices and everything they represent—not to mention the willpower it takes not to check them—is a huge distraction.  So find a non-tech room for reading.

(3) Read with a pencil, pen or highlighter. When we engage with books more deeply, actively responding to their ideas, we become more fully absorbed in the material, which improves our “associative thinking and subsequent creative insight.” (This will of course mean that you need to buy the book, which in time means you may wish to donate it to charities, through which others can benefit from it, too.)

(4) Keep a notebook nearby. Even when we’re closely engaged in a book, irrelevant thoughts can pop up in our minds (e.g. groceries to get; errands to run). Stulberg suggests that we right them down in a retraceable place, so that we can “off load [our] brains from trying to hang on to them.”

(5) Read for at least 30 minutes. Deep reading is similar to physical exercise. Our minds are muscles and need to be trained to read over a significant amount of time. Filling in brief moments of your day with an audiobook, though not terrible, cannot compare.

(6) Read as much as you can. Stulberg rightly says that “books are the best bargain there is” for sharing insights, wisdom and experience. As a professional coach who recommends reading, he has helped Olympic athletes to progress through life, post-sports; business founders through career-defining and challenging times; and has observed that wise leaders “from Bill Gates to Ruth Bader Ginsberg  . . . all read a heck of a lot.”

So why shouldn’t we, too? And that’s whether we are new to the English language or not.


And now it’s your turn. Do you practice deep reading in your professional or personal life? Has the thinking of Cavan, Krashen and Stulberg convinced you to get started?

Please share your experience. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

How has Covid Changed Copywriting (and Entrepreneurship)? Five Tips from Copywriter & Coach, Steve Slaunwhite

Pandemic times are not “unprecedented,” if we know the history of the Spanish Flu, the Bubonic Plague and others. But Covid-19 has shown us up close that pandemics have an extraordinary effect on the world of communications and marketing.

For instance, Terry O’Reilly dedicated a wildly entertaining and informative episode of his CBC radio program to “Marketing in the Time of Covid” on “Under the Influence” (February 18, 2021).

My colleague (and former coach), Steve Slaunwhite, blogged recently on ways in which Covid has changed copywriting. He says that rules of the game “have been altered. Perhaps permanently.” His observation that Covid has caused copywriting to “become more relevant, authentic—even caring” resonates with me.

Yes, we continue to write copy that tries to persuade and ultimately close sales.  But now, more than ever, conversational copy, which I find draws on storytelling, matters. The conversation outperforms any effort to pitch.

In fact, heavy pitching in pandemic times will only sound tone-deaf to the buyer. So how can copywriters and entrepreneurs address these uncertain times in our writing? Steve gives five tips, which I develop further, below.

  1.  He recommends that we update our understanding of our target buyers, or “buyer personas”: Ask yourself who they are. “If they were created before March 2020, they’re way out of date.” 

Spend some time reading and asking your customers what they’re thinking about, what worries them, what their “hopes and desires” are. Steve says that their answers will be different now than they were, one year ago. Customers and prospects may even be buying differently.

I’ve heard from the CBC and from trends in my local community that some people, not only in northern and remote Canadian communities, but also here at home, deal with pandemic risk by buying many of the amenities of life through Amazon:  For some of these buyers,  not enough stable providers (and deliverers) of food and goods have persisted, through the past year.

Now Zoom has become a means of hiring service providers, whereas earlier more in-person methods (or a combination of virtual and actual) were used.

Steve asks: “Does your marketing copy reflect” these kinds of changes? It needs to.

2. Learn to write conversationally: This is not news and yet I regularly see copy online that does not flow well. It reads, as Steve says, “stiff and formal.” I rebranded my business, Storytelling Communications, in 2018,  focusing on the importance of communicating in ways that quickly resonate with human readers–both thematically and in tone.

Consider that copywriting and marketing greats like Steve, as well as Nick Usborne, Michael Katz and giant, Seth Godin (the latter partnered with Bernadette Jiwa), have all developed training materials that teach conversational copywriting through storytelling.

  1. Build facts and details into your writing: Why? Uncertain times make people crave for certainty. I’ve noticed recently that terms like “bedrock,” “foundational,” “flagship” and “landmark” have circulated more in online news than I can ever remember! We often feel better just for reading those words.

Steve recommends inserting facts, details, useful knowledge from highly credible, authoritative sources. Make sure your statistics are up to date. (We need to update website copy from content that’s four or five years old.) Also, cite “plenty of testimonials.”

  1. Be very realistic about the benefits we tout and any outcomes we quote. Experienced copywriters know that we can write persuasively but still must be honest about benefits and expected outcomes. Otherwise, we have no credibility. Steve writes: “What has changed is that buyers are being extra cautious and scrutinizing the claims made in marketing copy much more closely.”

So we must write convincingly, but not overlook that we are being realistic (honest) in how we describe benefits and promises.

This reminds me of the anger of an accountant I know, who voiced his frustration to a nearby assistant, that a salesperson of their recently purchased photocopier was “a bald-faced liar” for promising a higher volume of copies than the machine produced. The salesperson’s credibility was shot—and won’t easily, if ever, be recovered.

  1. Reward your reader for reading your marketing copy: So we must not “pitch” or push in a hard-sell way. Steve knows that “pitch fatigue” can undermine the effectiveness of marcom copy.

He recommends an “alterative approach,” of including within a promotional email a few tips on how to make the most of the product or service: This “makes the email exciting and helpful to the buyer, whether they buy or not.”  Salespeople call this “adding value with every contact.”

Consider that companies as diverse as Vistaprint and FlexJobs (and many more) have sent me promotional emails in recent months that tell how to improve one’s resume, job interview strategies, etc.

But remember the evergreen power of storytelling (used by civilizations from cavemen to millennials), especially in pandemic times, to hook the reader.

To summarize, then: Covid times force us to be on top of our game as copywriters and entrepreneurs, more conscious and self-aware of our clients and prospects than ever before. We can avoid falling into a “tone-deaf” state if we update our understanding of our target buyer; learn to write conversationally; build facts and details into our copy; are realistic about benefits or outcomes; and add value to our audience, rewarding them for reading our writing.

Covid challenges us to be more nimble in our mindset, as promotional writers.

Copywriters and entrepreneurs who merely crank out copy or promotions in age-old ways will be left out in the cold.

And now it’s your turn. Do Steve’s five tips on how to update our approach to marketing in Covid days resonate with you?  Please share on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.




On Covidology: Language in pandemic days

In a recent episode of  CBC’s show, “Under the Influence,” called “Marketing in the Time of Covid,” ad man and marketer, Terry O’Reilly, cited the “word of the year” for 2020. According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, it was, not surprisingly, “pandemic.”

But O’Reilly’s interest in Covid related language is motivated by his claim that “for marketers, every week” in Covid “is a brand new year,” in which “new opportunities and challenges become apparent.” Covid related language, although often humourous, reflects that double edge of both opportunity and challenge.

Here are some of his favourites:

  • Covidiots” – people who disregard pandemic protocol, such as wearing masks and washing their hands, putting others at risk.
  • Zoom party”—the online meeting platform has become the software of people’s lives, including their means of communicating socially and personally, while displaying images of their and their respondents’ heads and shoulders.
  • Quarantini” – the term given to alcoholic drinks (especially martinis), shared with others during a Zoom call.
  • Locktail” – similarly, alcoholic drinks people turn to, to cope with  Covid lockdown periods.
  • Drivecation”—a holiday taken in your motorhome, parked in your own driveway, since travel out of one’s province (and certainly air travel) is prohibited or restricted.
  • Covid 19” – pounds people have gained over the quarantine period, digesting homemade sourdough bread.
  • Blursday” – confusion as to which day of the week it is, due to pandemic chaos and work-at-home scheduling.
  • Zumped” – for the unlucky in love, who get “dumped” over Zoom (not in person).
  • Covidantibuddies” – former friends who get on each others’ nerves after experiencing isolation time together.

and . . . .

Apocaloptimists” – people who believe “it’s bad now but we’ll get back to normal sometime soon.”

O’Reilly comments that “the yearn to feel normal” in Covid times is “overwhelming,” resulting in new interest in golf and outdoor sports activities often ignored in pre-Covid days; and in the popularity of touristy flights that don’t go far but remind us of when we could travel by air.

But he adds of these times: “The changes are breathtaking. . . . . We are all coming face-to-face with things we’ve never seen before.” And therefore the need for these neologisms that blend together familiar words in unfamiliar ways.

Although the distribution of vaccines and the coming end of winter have raised global hopes for recovery, we have been willing (or unwilling) participants in a watershed cultural moment:  As O’Reilly concludes, “Separate worlds can meet, born by the opportunity spawned by pandemic times.”

And now it’s your turn. What worlds have you seen combine, what opportunities have arisen in your pandemic life? Do you have new Covid words of your own?

Please share on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.


Uncle Frank’s morning constitutional and other stories, in this month’s “Tell Your Story Newsletter”

February 2021 Vol 3 Issue 2

Tell Your Story Newsletter (TYSN):

Specializing in Entrepreneurial and Organizational Storytelling

Let me tell your story!

Welcome Mid-February, 2021!

Today marks the start of a reprieve from two weeks of unseasonable cold in Saskatchewan. The mind-numbing, bone-chilling temperatures, descending at times to –55C with windchill, have kept many of us indoors. As I write this issue, it is Valentine’s Day, and pandemic restrictions (on top of the inclement weather) mean that few couples are dining out and no one observing the holiday out-of-doors.

Local media have reported an unprecedented use of energy to heat our homes in Saskatchewan, during this “Polar Vortex.” We’ve also distracted ourselves by powering up Netflix (in my case, BritBox) in our leisure hours.

What are you “binge-watching,” this weekend, if the options touted on CTV’s supper-time news on February 12th, “The Notebook” and “Dirty Dancing,” do not appeal?

What about “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (featuring the late, great Alan Rickman) or the BBC adaptation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel, North & South? Thought-provoking love stories that defy Hollywood’s “success” formulas.

And arguably more importantly, what are you reading, for leisure? I’m looking forward to delving into Resilient: How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength and Happiness, by Rick Hanson. In a very different vein, Eliot’s Middlemarch is waiting patiently for me, although there never seem to be enough hours . . . . .

This month’s articles features a surprising encounter at my local gym; and writerly thoughts from GrammarGirl, Mignon Fogarty, on using “person-first language,” when we discuss people with illnesses or disabilities.

If Valentine’s Day has left you out in the proverbial cold, you may be interested to know that we have just entered into Asia’s Lunar New Year! So much of the Eastern Hemisphere is celebrating the Year of the Ox: That animal predicts that 2021 will be a year requiring hard work and steady reliability. Just the thought makes me crave some Valentine’s chocolate!

Wishing all my valued readers a good month ahead,


Principal, Storytelling Communications



ARTICLE 1: Uncle Frank’s morning constitutional and what it teaches us about writing good copy


On “person-first” language, with Mignon Fogarty




Article One:  Uncle Frank’s ‘morning constitutional’ and what it teaches us about writing good copy

A few weeks ago, I witnessed an unusual scene at my local fitness facility. (Yes, it was open, but everyone there kept at least 10 feet apart and adhered to strict cleaning protocols. Those few of us “regulars” who still work out  during Covid, tend to do so out of medical necessity.)

After I finished my workout and just as I was leaving, one of the retired (70+) members, a 5 foot 5 inch ball of energy, caught the front door, as it swung behind me and exclaimed “Thank you!”

Surprised to find anyone so close on my heels, I stepped aside to let him pass. A sight–and a story–ensued!

“Uncle Frank,” as he is known to us, clad only in a long  green, terry cloth bathrobe and  barefoot in slingback “croc” shoes, cheerfully passed by, padding down the  sidewalk toward the back of the building,

“Clacketty-clack-clack,” his feet sounded, when his plastic crocs made contact with concrete. Although Saskatchewan’s current Polar Vortex had not yet set in, it was still a cold morning (-15 C), and with colder temperatures expected. When Uncle Frank’s feet met the snow and ice of the parking lot, his gait turned into more of a fast-paced shuffle–a sort of “swish, swish.”

Startled, I thought, “How far will he be going, dressed like that?” What about whatever health issues he may have?

But Uncle Frank, who by now was a good 15 feet ahead of me, continued to make his through the back parking lot, out onto the sidewalk, in the direction of the neighbourhood’s main thoroughfare. He evidently had no qualms of being seen in a bathrobe in high traffic.

Despite moving at a good clip, Uncle Frank, whose activity inside the gym I’d barely noticed, had an air of total nonchalance. He could have been enjoying an amble through his back garden in the height of summer. “Good Morning!” I heard him exclaim to a winter cyclist who was riding the wrong way, down the one-way street. The cyclist, a young man less than one-third of Uncle Frank’s age,  sped by in full winter gear, pausing long enough to do a “double take” at the older man’s dress.

A middle-aged African Canadian woman, who was waiting for a bus, was the next one to catch sight of Uncle Frank. Her eyes boggled, as she exclaimed (in her francophone tongue): “Il est vraiment fou!”

And yet, despite the oddity of Uncle Frank’s behaviour  that morning, he appeared to be firmly in control of himself and not someone I’d have thought an exhibitionist.  For as many months as I could remember, he had regularly and energetically exercised on machines in the gym without raising an eyebrow.  Now, however, he had let loose a quirkier side, making what some call a “morning constitutional,” in the out-of-doors. Instead of being satisfied with a routine “workout,” Uncle Frank engineered a  “breakout.”

Witnessing this reminded me of the nature of copywriting—or, as many Saskatchewanians prefer to call it, business writing. Most days, Uncle Frank uses machines like treadmills and benchpresses. But on this day, after completing that activity, he evidently craved a more “creative” finish . . .

In the world of copywriting, similarly, writers know the usefulness staying “safely tethered to the fundamentals of persuasion” (to quote Canadian copywriter,  Steve Slaunwhite). We think through questions when we start a  project and often apply “starter” formulas, as well as SEO or A/B testing, when we draft our documents. These procedures are like the calibrated weight machines at the gym. When writing marketing materials, copywriters often measure success rates by numbers.

We tend to consult copywriters’ formulas, such as  “the 5 Ps” (stating the problem; positioning one’s service as the solution; presenting the key features and benefits that differentiate one’s service; proving one’s claims by giving evidence; and proposing or inviting to act, via a call-to-action).

While such formulas help to structure our documents, good copywriters also know when to drop them, in favour of some quirkiness—a spark of insight or magic, some whimsy— that the standards alone do not allow.

Copywriting will only truly sing if we balance our use of standard, numbers and formulas with some creative play.

Did I mention that Uncle Frank took his “morning constitutional” that day, while sipping in his right hand from a dark mug of – water? Coffee? Something stronger? (No one seems to know!) Maybe he was shuffling his way toward the neighbourhood coffee shop, after he passed beyond my line of sight.

While other, more conventional athletes at my gym (me included) end our workouts routinely, Uncle Frank reminds us that writing (like exercise) only becomes truly interesting when we set conventions aside and open ourselves to something better.

And now it’s your turn. In the work that you do, how do you both adhere to standards and break free from them?

What do you do (in Covid times, no less) that reflects the spirit of Uncle Frank’s shuffle in his bathrobe and crocs?


STORYTELLER’S CORNER: On person-first language with “GrammarGirl,” Mignon Fogarty

American “GrammarGirl,” Mignon Fogarty, wrote recently in her newsletter on English usage that “the way we refer to people with diseases or conditions has changed in the last few decades.”

She posed the question: “Should you call someone a Diabetic or a person with Diabetes?” A few short lines later, she says that “it’s better to put the person first rather than emphasizing the disease . . .  [So] ‘people with Diabetes’ is better than ‘diabetics.’ ” But she hastens to add that this is “not true for every group, and you should make sure you are referring to people the way they want you to refer to them.”

An unhappy correspondent challenged Fogarty to adopt this perspective, some months earlier, by complaining that people with cancer are not referred to as “cancerics” and those with colds as “coldics!”

I recall listening to another aspect of this debate, 30 years ago, when U of S

English professors Ron Marken and Terry Matheson (on CBC radio’s “Watch your Language”) decried how “politically correct” language used to describe people with disabilities could undermine the seriousness of these people’s experiences.

I distinctly recall one caller to that show saying that he was “BLIND, NOT visually challenged!” It was the early 90s, the heyday of political correctness, whereby garbage collectors were referred to as “sanitation engineers.”

So how do we separate “person-first language” (“people with disabilities”) from trivializing (and ultimately dehumanizing) political correctness? Use of the term “person-first language” itself began to rise between 1980 and 1990, after which “diabetics” was a still “more common [expression] than ‘person with diabetes,’ ” but was becoming much less dominant.

Fogarty adds that in 1990 in the US, the influential “Americans with Disabilities Act” (ADA) favoured the phrase “people with disabilities” above “the disabled,” further bringing “person-first language” into the mainstream. In some ways, these changes are positive.

But Fogarty rightly nuances the issue by saying that “person-first language isn’t as simple or black-and-white as it initially seems.” Identity-first language can, in one moment, reflect pride from a minority group; and other times, it can elicit stigma, as it implies that someone’s difference is a “problem” that needs correcting or controlling.

Some minority groups disagree with others on these issues, both inside and outside of their communities. For instance, some people who have autism prefer to be called “autistic” or “autistic people,” since they see their condition as part of “an identity in the same way that ‘American’ is seen as an identity (when you call someone an ‘American’ ).” Others find such terminology to be oppressive.

Fogarty’s conclusion makes sense: Simply ask people within a community what they wish to be called. If they are not available to answer you, then consult reputable online resources that reflect these people’s interests, to see which term(s) are in common use, today.

But, even more importantly, Fogarty reminds us, citing the Associated Press, “you should only mention a person’s identity if it’s relevant to the story.” Otherwise, it’s far more respectful–and appropriate–to “leave it out.”

And now it’s your turn: Do you use “person-first language?” How do you deal with the inevitable problems that can result?

Please send your comments to my “Contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear from you.                           



I am particularly grateful this month to the Can-Sask Labour Market Services, Monica Kreuger (CVO and Founder of the Praxis School of Entrepreneurship), and alumni of Praxis’ staySMART program, who have called upon me to revise some of my colleagues’ website copy; to interview and write promotional articles on them; or to edit some of their blog postings.

As an alumna of the startSMART program, myself, I’ve joined forces in this work with Christina Cherneskey (CEO of Christina Cherneskey Communications) and with Megan Kent (Project Manager of Little Ox Film Company), to help alumni, who started smart, to “staySMART,”  especially in Covid times.

In this work, as a copywriter and editor, I have been delighted to interview entrepreneurs Ken Strohan (Your Own Way Residential, Ltd) and  Miranda Young (Alt Haus Interior Design) to learn about their stories and to strengthen their website copy. More clients are queuing up for the same.

It’s a joy to share a common background and training with these clients, so that traditional interviews give way to informal but deep  conversations about best practices, hopes, dreams–and, of course, the inevitable challenges and losses. These passionate, self-motivated individuals whose businesses were molded in the crucible of Praxis’ startSMART program, continue to thrive, while pursuing their livelihoods.

Special thanks also this month to Kanchan and Sona Manek of the Raj Manek Mentorship Program for organizing a thought provoking webinar on entrepreneurial “adaptability vs. extinction” by Brenda Nowakowsi of JNE Welding.

Brenda shared an intensive and inspiring presentation on how entrepreneurs must maintain a nimble attitude and forward-looking behaviours to seek “continual improvement,” if we want to stay ahead both of rapid digitalization and workaday challenges.

I’m very grateful, in other news, to exchange emails on starting to teach ESL, with Steve Cavan, pioneering craft brewmaster of SK (former director of Paddock Wood Brewery). Steve has also taught philosophy, classics and writing over many years at the U of S. His capacity to pivot in pandemic times inspires me, as does his sensible advice. Thank you, Steve!

On a related note, I recently  completed my certification as a TEFL teacher (teacher of English as a foreign language), through in Inverness, Scotland. Their excellent training materials, useful webinars and job board are helping me to develop this new arm of my communications services.

Another thanks this month (it’s been busy!) to Rev. Roberto DeSandoli, Martha Fergusson and other coordinators of “Kidz Klub,” at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Saskatoon). They’ve kindly welcomed me as a virtual volunteer, so that I can immerse myself in working with children. This work is in part to give back to a remarkable faith community and partly to (re)teach me how to engage with children!

Another “shout out” to the very faithful staff at my local gym, who regularly prepare and (re)clean the spaces and equipment, making exercise possible in these deadening, Covid days.

As many Saskatchewanians know, the best way to shoulder the latest “Polar Vortex” is to keep one’s body moving, daily–and with it, increasing blood flow to one’s brain. Kudos and virtual hugs to gym staff Jackie, Fred, Val, Nima, Monika and other team members, who help us keep our endorphins flowing, and on a limited budget, too!

Special thanks, as well, to Delia, Anna and Abigail caregivers of an elderly relative; and the staff of the orthopedic division, SK Abilities Council (senior division); who support the elderly members of many families in Saskatoon, to live the best lives they can, in our community.



Between 2011 and December 2018, Elizabeth Shih Communications chronicled the stories of B2B marketing and communications on the Prairies and across the country.

Effective January 1, 2019, I rebranded as “Storytelling Communications.” I now write marketing and communications documents and lead  workshops that help entrepreneurs and newcomers to Canada to strengthen their businesses or secure better jobs.

Interested in learning more? Please contact me through my CASL compliant website (

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Communicating about science in a skeptical world . . . . a webinar with science writer, Michael Robin

Although I’m occasionally asked to write on a scientific topic, I am not a science writer, per se—I haven’t read or researched enough in the field to make such a claim. But last fall, Saskatchewan’s best science writer, Michael Robin (Farm Management Editor at “Western Producer”), gave a great webinar for Ag-West Bio, discussing how to communicate about “science . . . in a skeptical world.” 

For more than 25 years, Robin has read and written a great deal about science and interviewed countless scientists; yet he remains a modest person and deep thinker on how to communicate science for laypersons.

In a webinar last fall, he stressed that belief “can be stronger than facts and lasts longer.” Some fears of the past 30 years remain, such as that microwaves ovens cause cancer, drinking water is unsafe, or herbicides cause “global warming,” “tinnitus” or even “hemorrhoids.”

Robin said that good communicators aim for middle-of-the-pack sources, avoiding “ALTERNet” (on the left) and equally, “Breibart” (on the right). More fact- and reason-based AAAs,, the Cochrane Library, Genetic Literacy Project, the Mayo Clinic and Environment Canada are more reliable, agenda-free sources. He reminds us that the risks of suppressing the facts are nothing new: Aristotle wrote that “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to consider a thought, without accepting it.” And remember that “listening is not believing.” And that “dumbing it down” is no goal, as it insults, offends and fails to educate the lay reader.

So what do writers and readers need, to be rational about science? Robin’s list includes these:

(1) Intelligence—we need to understand what’s under discussion. This is not only an IQ issue, but one of reading and prior education.

(2) We need valid knowledge (sources) to read, since “garbage in” means “garbage out.”

(3) We need to be willing to make the effort to think. Surprisingly, cognition is often left behind in contemporary debates around science.

(4) We need to keep open minds and to be humble enough to change our perspectives, when needed. When credible information is presented, we also need to preserve that away from manipulation by others. Robin cites the US psychologist Barbara Drescher who says people are irrational because they are “stupid, ignorant, lazy, arrogant or some combination of those.”

(5) There’s money in misinformation. Consider that American celebrities, Drs. Oz and Phil, earned far less in their respective fields of medicine and psychology than when they went online and on network television to “promote” their brands of health. Consider propaganda, misinformation, disinformation and political spin, on issues like renewable energy, whether to avoid GMOs and who is manipulating Western nations’ democratic elections.

Robin cited the “Dunning Kruger effect,” whose central tenet is “we don’t know enough to know what we don’t know.” And folk who think they know the most, know the least. One needs to be able to change one’s views when needed; and equally defend them, when needed.

Listening to an opponent is no easy matter, since cognitive dissonance uses the same part of the brain as pain does, so people tend to selectively reject scientific findings in support of values or perspectives they want.

In science communication, then, Robin advocates “aiming for neutrality,” but also reminds us of the “Information Deficit Model”– that there are limits on the extent to which some people will change their attitudes if presented with information that is neutral or easy to understand. The conversion or change will not be complete, because knowledge is no “silver bullet.”

Good science writing can inform the “moveable middle” of readers who need encouragement to get off the fence in challenging debates. Robin recommends these practices to do so:

(1) Talk to the third ear—talk as if you don’t know that anyone else is listening, but they are and you do.

(2) Be an active listener—be attentive, process what you hear and ask for clarification when needed. Don’t listen to others only enough to respond or fight back. Pointing out inconsistencies in others’ arguments encourages doubt, which in turn encourages deeper thinking.

(3) Combat misinformation with these factors: provide detailed but concise explanations; explain using alternate accounts, not leaving a hole open for someone else to fill in; know that the more familiar a topic may be, the more likely the opposite is true; repeat corrections, as they build belief, but do not repeat errors without correcting them; appoint a reliable communicator within your office or agency to act on social media feeds, since you have only 30 seconds (not minutes or hours) to correct misinformation, before readers accept it; and finally, use visuals and images in ways that readers can trust.

(4) Have publicists who are trustworthy and likeable to inoculate against misinformation.

(5) Encourage and support analytical thinking.

(6) Affirm an audience’s sense of self (since humiliation does not encourage a reader’s belief or learning). Allowing others to save face is crucial in debates.

(7) Use media that the audience prefers (e.g. it may be image sharing, like Instagram for millennials).

(8) Use language that is familiar to your audience  . . . and

(9) Use messages that your audience finds credible and relatable.

Robin’s reading lists are wonderful. In particular, he mentioned Carl Sagan’s 1990s book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, as being as relevant today, as it was 30 years ago.

Broader strategies for building a solid network of reputable science communication are to join organizations like the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada; to build a network of colleagues (e.g. “Café Scientifique” in Saskatoon); to develop international contacts among researchers and their communicators; to avoid developing a “filter bubble” of people who agree with you; and to remember, Robin stresses, that neutrality has many facets—sometimes there may be only one credible side to an issue. But you may face much opposition from the “lunatic fringe,” so that every good communicator’s responsibility is to find and use credible and reputable sources.

Realize also, he concluded, that the frustration factor in science communication runs high—it is a process that has always been with us (consider the “Flat Earth Society,” and other conspiracy theories) and always will be.

We’re fortunate in Saskatoon to have a vibrant community of scientists, many of whom are based at the University of Saskatchewan. Equally important, we need more, thoughtful science communicators, like Michael Robin.

And now it’s your turn: When you read and/or communicate about science, which points from Michael’s lists are most pertinent?

Please weigh in on my “contact” page. I’d be delighted to hear your feedback.