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So what? Now what?

Communicating science in R&D means story-telling innovation like an entrepreneur

by Nick Milanovich, PhD

Communicating science in R&D means translating the jargon and concepts into terms that business units appreciate. This will achieve the buy-in needed to advance projects beyond the R&D lab. Nick Milanovich explains the importance of hanging  up the lab coat and putting on an entrepreneur’s jacket when pitching a technical project.

Science doesn’t speak for itself. To other scientists, it must be reported. And to lay audiences, it must be explained. Or so we’ve been taught. In the business context, communicating science in R&D means story-telling like an entrepreneur.

We scientists learned in school to arm ourselves with details and cloak ourselves in data before dueling with hostile inquisitors over dissertation defenses and research results. And we learned to approach presentations with the goal of being the smartest person in the room. But I guarantee you that not once in all your lecture halls were you asked the most profound and crucial question I have ever encountered:

So what? Now what?

Marketing and R&D speak different languages. The R&D professional wraps technical terms in data with the goal of showing that something works the way it should. For marketing and business units, it’s all about value–how a proposed innovation will add value to a company and customers, drive top-line revenue and growth, support the brand… all the non-technical things that R&D hardcores never learned in school. 

What we have here is a failure to communicate.

When communicating science in R&D, technical concepts must be translated in order to secure funding and advance innovation across business units. It’s important to stop thinking of oneself as an R&D manager when presenting a project’s results. The goal is different. You’re looking to get something onto a shelf, not into a journal.

Approach your pitch with an entrepreneur’s sense of story-telling. That’s how a great new technology will advance with the staffing and budget it deserves. That’s how you get buy-in and alignment from up top and across business units. Without that buy-in and alignment, the project is doomed no matter how cool it is and how clear you see its results are.

The stars of R&D departments are good at pitching their idea with more sex appeal. They know that effectively communicating science in R&D means story-telling their project the way an entrepreneur would pitch a startup to an investor; in fact, they present technology more like startups than a science project. They choose wording that engages an audience of all backgrounds, and tell a story full of commercially-relevant details. 

It can’t just be technically feasible. It must also be commercially viable, solving a problem or filling a market need. Scientists typically fail to give our best ideas proper lift-off because we weigh them down with onerous technical details while neglecting the crucial business and customer appeal dimensions.

I was guilty of this many times before my ultimate epiphany.

Okay, it works. So what? Now what? 

I was working for Sonicare, and my job was to create methods to evaluate the oral hygiene devices, e.g. power toothbrushes. In one case, I had been working for two years to develop a clinical method to measure plaque removal from “hard to reach areas” between back teeth. The work was quite successfully done. I published the findings in top peer-reviewed journals in my field and gave many presentations at conferences and invited talks. 

Then came an invitation to give a brown bag presentation at work. No problem. My presentations were already battle-tested with the scientific community. I was ready to go toe-to-toe with any critic of my work. My coworkers were going to see firsthand how robust this work was and the edge it gave us over competitors. Ha!

The audience certainly listened and asked questions. But I sensed they were underwhelmed. Something felt wrong. I asked for feedback from a marketing person that attended the session. She said, “I have an engineering background, so I get the data. What I don’t get is how does it help sell toothbrushes?” 

How does it help sell toothbrushes?

The light came on. Everything clicked. I saw that the single most important thing, the market, was missing. I suffered from scientific tunnel vision. Moreover, my expectations for the audience were unrealistic. I went to school for 10 years to master this stuff, and I expected someone to absorb a crash course in a highly technical concept in an hour? That was completely unrealistic.

The picture tells the story

 I don’t have a photographic memory, but I should have remembered a very important photo from a few years previous. I had been working in R&D for another company developing an anti-staining barrier for teeth that could be incorporated into the formula for one of the company’s biggest brands. The technology worked very well. But what launched its success was a picture, not data. 

I used a photo that demonstrated the anti-staining effect very compellingly whenever I pitched the technology to management. Sure, I also had data for the scientists in the audience. But starting with the photo got the business folks hooked.

Once the hook was set, they were ready to be reeled in. All I had to do was answer their crucial question: “What do we need to do to commercialize this technology?” In all its forms, this question will make or break the pitch. It’s the most common stumbling block that stalls my R&D comrades’ efforts to advance technology. 

The whole commercial picture

This commercialization question is actually a summary of many questions. For me, this included regulatory and safety requirements, supply chain, additional lab and clinical testing, final product cost, intellectual property protections, product claims, etc. Just knowing what questions to ask was a critical starting point. Getting to the bottom of it all required getting out of the lab and having numerous conversations with adjacent business units. But it was well worth it. 

When the time came, my pitch addressed the key decision-makers’ desires and concerns. That let the business leaders make a well-informed decision on prioritizing and resourcing this technology’s development. Moreover, I clearly established myself as its owner. (Incidentally, others were trying to get a piece of the ownership, but my presentation made it clear who was in charge).

It must be said: that picture of teeth told a thousand words. But only about the technology’s efficacy. Filling in the entire commercial picture required getting on the same page with everyone who would ultimately be invested in the project’s advancement. Getting their buy-in was critical. Somehow I’d forgotten what drove this early success during my talk at Sonicare. 

So what? Now what?

So, years later, after Sonicare, I was a technical marketing director at another company. Actually, I was the marketing department, and the sales guys relied heavily on me to help them position our new products for sales calls. For example, I had data on the skin wellness grade of a certain cellulose fiber. This was not a trivial subject matter to explain. As I set about elucidating the nuances of this stuff to our sales folks and our customers, their eyes began to cross. From the distant shores of lessons learned, the refrain rang out:

So what? Now what? 

Well, how about I show you, I thought. So I went into the lab, took out my phone, and created a visual demonstration of our skin wellness pulp’s results vs. regular pulp. At the end of this 60-second video, you could easily see the comparative advantage of our cellulose fiber. It was like taking the power of the infomercial and putting it into the hands of a trained scientist. The commercial appeal was obvious.

 Sales flipped. A picture may say a thousand words, but that stripped-down phone video spoke volumes. That one minute of filming accomplished more than hours and hours of data-laden presentations ever would. A 60-second phone video! And believe me, I’m not exactly James Cameron.

The video helped us sell to customers, and helped our customers sell us further within their own organizations. It empowered our sales team to talk effortlessly about the new product without getting confused by the technical details. And customers asked to use the video to help them pitch our product to their own management. In one case, a customer wanted the instructions for the demo. That customer ultimately placed a $16 million order. Talk about ROI on marketing collateral!

Communicating science in R&D? Sell innovation like an entrepreneur. 

You don’t have to get heavy with the science to achieve buy-in. Being knowledgeable is enough. The important thing is to tell a story that covers all the technical and non-technical commercial aspects that ultimately answer every department’s question of: So what? Now what? 

Ask yourself: What are the legal, regulatory, and safety hurdles? Can marketing sell it–what’s the claim on the box? Does it align with executive leadership’s top-line revenue goals? Supply chain, scale-up, packaging, cost/margin of the final product… any of these concerns can kill an innovation even with good technical results and consumer appeal. Make sure your presentation checks all those boxes, and then format the story with a beginning, middle and end.

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains. — Steve Jobs

I once was presenting to a customer during a sales call. One minute into the introduction, they pulled someone high up the food chain in from another meeting to listen. It was somewhat by design on my part, because the introduction contained the high-level overview of that particular technology’s broad commercial value. Getting right to the So what? Now what?  immediately clued the audience in on how this technology could be relevant and set the wheels in motion for top-level buy-in.

A simple, entrepreneur-style story is effective with a technical audience, too. Once, while working with a software retailer as a technical lead, I was pitching to a room full of 15 PhD level chemists and aerospace engineers at a big company. At the end of it, they were hopping around like caffeinated monkeys they were so excited. I showed the presentation to a co-worker who said, “This is like explaining quantum mechanics to my grandmother.” 

Simplicity works even when you’re pitching something complex to smart people. They bought the product, largely because my presentation was so basic that they could understand the technology’s alignment with the larger business goals.  

Staying simple on a story lets people get the whole picture. Translating it into their language–in terms of company goals and commercial applications and branding and market impact–gets them excited to pick the project up and move it forward. 

Once you’re in front of an audience, stop being a scientist. Become an entrepreneur. Tell your innovation story like you’re pitching a startup to an investor. That’s the secret to pitching innovation internally. 

* * *

Communicating science in R&D pointers:

how to be an entrepreneur when pitching your idea to your R&D department and adjacent business units.

  1. Visuals. Show don’t tell. Literally. Use images or video. Your phone can be a powerful story-telling tool. Pictures and videos enable simple and effective visual demonstrations of your technology with minimal time and effort. This will not only help sell a technology internally, but there’s a chance it might be part of the marketing later.

  2. Translate for the audience. Expect a mixed audience. Imagine how you’d explain quantum mechanics to your grandmother. Hit the highlights and skip the details. Details take too much time and will be the source of confusion (and frustration) for the audience. There will always be a time and place to dig into technical details later.

  3. Clear and simple. Don’t wordsmith. You’re not creating poetry. The ROI on wordsmithing a bullet point is zilch and no one will notice. If you’re spending a lot of time haggling over word choices, chances are the presentation is too wordy and needs to be more visual.

  4. Straight talk. Think of a presentation as a conversation, not a lecture. It should spark curiosity and invite questions.

  5. Total buy-in. Have conversations with stakeholders. This strengthens the content in a presentation and the stakeholders can back you up during the presentation and help drive it forward afterward. Ultimately, the project will need to compel people whose job it is to sell, market, staff and budget it, and to ensure the project is commercially scalable and legally compliant. Emphasize the technology’s business implications across various dimensions.

  6. So what? Now what? Seriously. This is a profound and crucial question. It will be asked, and everything flows into and out of this philosophical nexus. What value does your technology add to the product and the company? Answer the questions:
    – What is needed to prove the technology works? -> For R&D folks to address directly.
    – What is needed to convert the technology into a product? -> This requires input from a lot of other people, e.g., marketing, legal, manufacturing, etc. 
  1. Create a master slide deck. This is the capstone into which every previously-mentioned point coalesces. If possible, also create demos, videos, etc. This takes time, but it will be worth it.
  • The master deck should include every aspect of technology: technical results, legal, regulatory/safety, supply chain, cost information, manufacturing options, market opportunity, and go-to-market strategy. Consider this to be a pitch deck for intrapreneurs, and consider the audience as investors.
  • Use the master deck to create custom presentations tailored to the audience. In most business settings, it’s sufficient to summarize the science in a couple of slides. Better yet, use visuals, e.g., photos, videos, and mock-ups, to make the technology or product come alive.

    The Speaking Scientist, Nick Milanovich, PhD is a rare combination of scientist, speaker, and presentations coach, with a head for marketing and sales. In addition to being Director, Innovation Services Group at Xinova, he helps other scientists and engineers communicate in a way that is meaningful to their sponsors, investors, and customers. Nick holds a PhD in biophysical chemistry and has published and presented on diverse topics such as clinical dentistry, cancer diagnostics, and quantum mechanical modeling of aerospace materials. Nick has guided countless scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and organizations with developing impactful presentations, investor pitches, and marketing materials in ways that resonate with their audiences. Nick has developed a reputation for exceptional results with start-ups, national and internationally recognized companies, and universities.

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