Popularization Techniques to Learn from Music and Science
No, you don’t need to “twerk” or drop nuclear bombs to get the word spread about you or your product.
It’s not about buying ads for inflated attention like marketers suggest either. It’s about mass appeal.
Pop, pop, pop – popularization
When you hear the long and officially sounding term popularization you immediately remember knowing it without instant recognition because you already know pop music and popular science in most cases.
Pop music is by now the most popular kind of music by a far margin.
More than two thirds of billboard hits are categorized as pop these days. You’d expect that given the name won’t you? The Popular Science magazine and the whole movement towards the popularization of science is almost 150 years old.
It’s no wonder that popularization sounds quaintly familiar. I just re-contextualized it within the Internet realm.
I don’t want to speak solely about science today. Pop music is the example most of you will be able to relate to. Thus I decided to take three popularization techniques that are very similar in both pop music and popular science namely
- Entertainment value and personal relevance
- Simplifying of complex concepts
- Use of metaphors and analogies
When you take a look at the list of famous English language popularizers you will also find two names that might be familiar to you:
- Isaac Asimov
- Arthur C. Clarke
both of whom are some of the most famous science fiction writers. Some of the most popular science fiction movies have been made based on their novels or stories, think of 2001, Odyssey in Space or I,Robot. I also have read several books from both of them.
I even started a sci-fi blog called after a concept from a novel by Clarke – Nodus. The nodus is a place set up by superior aliens to find out whether upcoming civilizations are hostile or can be integrated into the galactic community.
Sci-fi writers are also in the entertainment business, just like pop stars. So let’s talk about the things common to both popular music and science.
Entertainment value and personal relevance
Scientific discoveries are often hard to understand and relate to. After all they are completely new otherwise someone else would have discovered them earlier so that nobody else understood them prior to the scientist who first did. Now begins the hard part. Just because a genius does fathom something spectacular doesn’t make you and me get it. Also it’s often not easy to even grasp why it’s spectacular.
When it comes to pop music you will notice the complete absence of science in it.
Nobody sings about exoplanets, the string theory or DNA sequencing. There are songs about DNA though. One of my favorite groups, Air has one called “Biological” where the most intriguing line is “I need your DNA”. True, this song doesn’t tell you a whole lot about biology but it makes it personally relevant. Also there is some information in it “billions of genes” and “XX XY” are clues and info chunks that are actually useful.
Most scientific breakthroughs are far too abstract and complex for the average person.
They can’t relate to them either. Why the heck should someone care for quantum physics for example? The whole discipline sound completely mind-boggling. This is when stories come into play. As personal stories on how quantum physics affected someone’s live are very rare the genre of hard science fiction is the best way to provide stories you can empathize with.
Even by now more common topics like space travel, genetics or robotics would be pretty devoid of relevance for most of us without popular sci-fi movies and books. While these films often dramatize the effects and focus on the negative ones the potential impact oh humanity’s future can be pretty well visualized using the fictional lives of future explorers.
Some online topics like search engine optimization for example are completely abstract for most of people and even downright boring. They fail to realize how much they are affected by SEO practices good or bad. Actually the bad ones are probably the only ones average people will notice. That’s why most people mix up SEO and spamming.
It’s not far-fetched to come up with a gripping story on how Google shattered the lives of a family
in the Nevada desert, not far from a Native American reservation. The son of the family, 12 years old and eager to learn horse riding has discovered a website where people who can’t afford a horse can find cheaper opportunities to ride.
His mother doesn’t allow him to go the miles to the Sioux territory on foot while they can’t risk breaking their old car on the dust tracks leading out there. Then months later he attempts to find the site again but it has been penalized. Will Stan, the young boy with Irish descent make it with the help of an optimized website?
Simplifying of complex concepts
So now that we can make abstract and complex things entertaining and personally relevant we still need to explain them or the audience won’t be able to memorize more than the story and their reaction to it (being entertained).
One of the things most sci-fi movies get wrong until today is the sound in space. In short: there is no sound in space. In vacuum sounds has no means of spreading. It needs air to do so. Yet, most sci-fi movies show spectacular space ship fights and explosions as if they ‘d happen on Earth and of course we can hear the explosions.
Compare that to the 2001: A Space Odyssey movie and you will know what I mean. It has some very long silent scenes. Some movies cover up that issues by providing a lot of music instead. That way you do not realize that there is silence either. 2001 manages to capture the overwhelming silence without becoming boring. That’s what filmmakers are afraid of. They assume that viewers deprived of the sensory spectacle they are used to in movies will revolt.
When you watch Star Wars or Star Trek you will notice a lot of such inconsistencies after a while. For example there seems to be no problem with gravity in most space ships. Somehow they have mastered it in most cases. Also aliens often speak English even without using “universal translators”. You can depict the problem of understanding an alien species even in a short episode of Star Trek.
One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is Darmok. It’s not really one of the most gripping ones, the special effects are pretty low level too with the exception of the partly invisible alien animal threatening the protagonists. Yet, overcoming a language barrier is shown almost perfectly.
Simplifying and reducing complexity is not about dumbing down.
The Beatles are the most successful band of all times not because their lyrics are naive or stupid but because everyone understand them and can relate. Even 40 years later their timeless appeal astounds.
I didn’t listen to the Beatles as a kid, a youngster or young adult but recently I rediscovered their work and have been literally moved by their music. There have been many boy bands later on who were created largely with the purpose of making money. New Kids on the Block, Take That, ‘N Sync – you name it. None of them could match the spark of the Beatles though despite their hits.
Take note that some of the people involved with the boy bands of the past have become successful entertainers later. Think
- Mark Wahlberg from NKOTB (now a popular actor)
- Robby Williams from Take That (now a popular solo musician)
- Justin Timberlake from ‘N Sync (now both a highly popular musician and actor).
These guys are not Simpletons. They are self-made men in the best sense of it. They became popular later because they were authentic personalities, not just made up idols anymore. So despite simplicity it’s not solely about streamlined and clean-cut avatars.
You could also use female examples here, think Victoria Beckham of the Spice Girls. Simplicity should end when authenticity is endangered and you optimize your brand, yourself or your product so much that it looks fake.
Use of metaphors and analogies
I hope you all know what metaphors and analogies are as I use them all the time its seems to me. Let me explain to all those who aren’t sure. A metaphor is something like “he is a lion” when you refer to someone who is strong and courageous similarly to the king of the jungle. An analogy would be a bit more timid: he’s behaving like a lion.
This could mean a lot of things for in most cases you would probably compare a person’s activity to that of a lion. Most likely you would focus on the predatory aspects of that animal. You won’t say something like “he’s lying around like a lion” although lions tend to be pretty lazy most of the time. They are hunting fora while and relax for the rest of the day.
When it comes to popularization you use the things people already know to explain other things they don’t know yet.
For example you could say that quantum states are behaving like teenagers. When you look at them they stop behaving the way they did and start giggling, showing off or doing something else completely different than before. Similarly in quantum physics we observe that the behavior of quantum particles changes under supervision.
In popular music the metaphor and the analogy are even more common than in explaining scientific research. Just think of the following quote: “like a lion in zion“. Indeed that famous song combines both metaphor and analogy. The line says iron like a lion in Zion. So the character represented in that song will be unrelenting like Iron or like a lion in Zion. At least that’s what I think it means. That’s the beauty of metaphor and analogy. It’s easy to understand because everybody already has some meaning for the words you use.
When dealing with cryptic and boring niche topics like SEO I use a lot of metaphor and analogy. My favorite one is the “imagine this in real life” I stole from the Google Analytics team and their funny videos.
* Still from the motion picture “2001: A Space Odyssey”