Influencing Decision Makers: From Julio Friedmann

“Decision makers will want to know, “Why am I talking to you? What information do I need to know? Am I going to need to make a decision? What action do I take?”  The action might be to book a committee hearing. It might be to start working on draft legislation. They just want to know what decision to make based on the information you have provided. It’s about meeting their needs; it’s not about the science.” 

–  Julio Friedmann

A Conversation with Julio Friedmann, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Clean Coal

Julio Friedmann is one of the world’s leading thinkers on managing the emissions of carbon dioxide. In the 1990s he helped originate the concept of carbon capture and storage, where carbon dioxide from industry and power plants is captured from the smokestack, and then stored underground as a supercritical liquid, much like oil. Julio got his bachelor’s degree from MIT in music and a master’s degree in geology (yes, he is a renaissance man) and his PhD from the University of Southern California in sedimentology, the study of how rocks like sandstone form. He has worked at Exxon, the University of Maryland, and Lawrence Livermore Lab. Today he is the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Energy for Clean Coal – but we interviewed him in Livermore before that gig began, so his comments reflect those of the Chief Energy Technologist at Lawrence Livermore, not the Administration.


When people are trying to convince you of something, what do you need to hear in order to be compelled?

I listen for a couple of things. First, is this really new, or is it already around in another form? Second, is it materially important? An important idea is one that creates time, money, and above all, it makes things much easier. The Internet does that by allowing us to send mail instantly instead of writing it, putting a stamp on it, walking to the postbox…you get the point. The vacuum cleaner is easier than picking up the rug and hitting it outside. These are pretty substantial innovations.


How do you explain complicated issues to people who have different baseline knowledge of the topic?

I often have a slide early in the talk where I can say, “If you don’t get anything else out of the talk, get this.” That focuses everyone in the room on you for 30 seconds. Even if they tune out for the rest of the talk, they hear that. That means your message had better be a good one. It has to the one that you actually want to communicate, and that matters.


That leads nicely into the concept of an elevator pitch. Do you have a particular topic that has an elevator pitch?

I guess I have lots of those. Here’s a topic I am enthusiastic about, but it is in early days. It is immensely revolutionary, and I’m not the right scientist to do the work. But the elevator pitch is; ”Today we can provide the functions of biology without biology. We can do what nature does in term of energy services, like photosynthesis or making complex molecules from simple ones, and we believe we can do that without using the organisms. That will save the world a bunch of time and money.” That’s the short pitch, the why the listener should care.

If I have another few seconds I can start into how; “ Humans started doing this by harnessing animals and plowing fields – the first round of energy services in nature. The second round of energy services in nature was things like the Haber-Bosch process that makes ammonia fertilizer from the nitrogen in air. It used to be that the only thing that could make fixed nitrogen was clover and legumes. Now, we have an industrial process that makes it. But it is expensive; it costs a lot of money to build the factories, and the energy conversion efficiency is awful, but you can make huge supplies of fertilizer and change the world. Now, imagine if instead of using the huge arc furnace of that process, you were able to do simple chemistry that follows the same paths as in the legumes, but with industrial scale efficiency and process density. A lot of production going on in one place, instead of spread out over a huge number of open fields. With that kind of technology you can envision a whole system where you take the core chemistry of what nature does, and repackage it.  You can match nature’s approach in smaller, higher output units. They can be flexible and have exactly the same environmental impact as the natural system.”

Of course the next part of the elevator pitch is to describe how your particular technology can do one part of that vision.


Where have you seen someone champion science most effectively?

I think that podiums are holy places. They provide an opportunity to change peoples’ minds and affect the way they think and act in the world. The person who I most associate with this idea, who I’ve seen handle it effectively and successfully over and over, is Rob Socolow at Princeton University. I think Rob spends every waking moment thinking, “how can I educate, how can I communicate complex ideas to people?”

Rob has briefed many many people on Capitol Hill. He has briefed captains of industry and he has spent his share of time with the leaders of countries. He ultimately does not view his job as one of influence. He believes it is most important for him to clarify and elucidate. He wants these busy decision makers to understand the issues. He would say, “I don’t run a country, I don’t run a Fortune 500 company, I don’t know all the other things around all the complexities of these guy’s jobs, but if I can communicate my point very clearly and they believe me, they will weave that information it into whatever else they do”. And in a room full of experts who are busy trying to convey as much detail as possible, Rob will do the opposite. He will elicit as much information as he can from the decision makers in the room, so that he can repackage the details in a form coherent to them – and only then re-communicate it back to the policy makers.

I saw Rob give a talk at the World Bank about greenhouse gas emissions using his famous wedge diagram. The wedge diagram was his way of communicating the complexities of climate science in the easiest, simplest way to the widest set of people. The chairman of BP was in the audience, and he later and he brought Rob’s wedge concept to British prime minister Tony Blair. Tony wrote Rob a personal note saying, “I’ve never understood this climate stuff before, it finally makes sense.”


Talk about the wedge.

Basically Rob was deliberately trying to push back on the idea that then Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham put forward, which was that we need a transformation equivalent to the discovery of electricity to solve climate change. Rob’s response to that was, “Poppycock, we just need to spend some money and apply the technology we have.” As he tried to package that idea, he realized there was always this bucket of stuff, this bag of rocks of technology and a whole bunch of people trying to champion their respective technology. What was lost in all of this was what’s useful and what’s materially important. And so Rob came up with the wedges.

A climate wedge, or climate abatement wedge, was just a unit that was 50 years long and  represents four gigatons of carbon dioxide tall in the shape of a triangle. He said, over 50 years, if you want an emissions trajectory that is flat (and we are currently on a trajectory that is up) then everything between up and flat is some amount of emission that you can break up into bite-size wedges and assign one technology to one wedge. Maybe that’s a whole bunch of wind power, or maybe that’s a whole bunch of energy efficiency for cars, or maybe that’s planting a bunch of trees, but whatever it is it has to be big enough to count. That means, over 50 years, it has to account for that much emissions.

By breaking it down in that very simple way, Rob was very quickly able to dispense with a whole bunch of technologies that were marginal and would never matter. He was also able to say, “I don’t care which of these technologies you use as long as you have enough wedges to get the job done.” And that allowed people to push forward their own ideas credibly. It also meant that you could very quickly see that you couldn’t solve the problem with energy efficiency gains because you needed seven wedges of that and it just wasn’t possible. In a very simple heuristic, the wedges communicated a bunch of very complicated ideas.


How do you approach creating the content of your conversations and presentations?

I follow a formula that was drilled into my head by my high school debate teacher: Elizabeth Dulley. She was an absolute gem of a human being. She had polio and used crutches to walk around and she drilled into everyone on the team’s head the Dulley package – Name it, Explain it, Prove it, Conclude it.

You explain what it is then you give evidence to it and then wrap it up. If it’s a complex point it might be three to five slides. It might be five minutes of talking.

If it’s a complex topic, let’s say how a fluid gas desulfurization happens in a power plant, it can a little complicated. You cannot explain that on one slide. First you need to explain how it cycles in nature and you can’t do that on one slide. People might try to do that on a slide with lots and lots of arrows and talk through it for about five minutes. That might work if your audience is freshmen scientists. For other people though, that won’t get you to where you need to go.

So instead, I say let’s talk about the carbon cycle. There are stocks and flows. You explain where carbon sits and where carbon moves. Carbon sits in the atmosphere, plants, rocks and the ocean. When it flows you explain that when you breathe you emit carbon dioxide. When the oceans are warm the carbon dioxide comes out of them. When plants grow in the ocean and die carbon dioxide sinks into the rocks. Then you give some proofs and numbers. You give an example to the audience so that they clock it and then say the reason. Then you conclude it. Explain the reason why this is important. You have to understand the carbon cycle if you want to make a dent in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.


How should scientists think about using jargon?

I work very hard in my presentations to strip out a lot of jargon. Now, a lot of people still think I use too much jargon, but jargon is really only useful for the specialists in exactly your field. When I am speaking to an audience of almost any PH.D scientists they will have no clue what I’m talking about if I use specialist terminology from my field of sedimentology and geology. I have to strip down that terminology into clean digestible chunks of information. This is even more important when audiences are multilingual. I give talks in China, Japan, Germany, all over, and most people in the audience won’t get half of what I’m are saying anyway because they are busy translating. You have to give them a chance to absorb the material.

One thing I’m glad to say I learned from Roger is that audiences digest information in different ways. Some people get it with pictures and some people get it in writing. If you’re going to give a fairly information-rich presentation you should communicate with all these things – your spoken words, text, and images. That way most people in the audience have a chance to get it on their terms. And normally with text on slides, if you can’t say the item with eight words or less then don’t bother, because a paragraph is too long to absorb quickly. But that text is still really important. There was a company I was working with, whose CEO got information by reading. If he didn’t read the words, he wouldn’t get what you’re talking about.


How did you handle that?

I did that two ways. Before I gave the presentation I wrote something up for him. My contact said, “The CEO’s unit is a two page white paper, it can’t be three pages. Make it two and he will read it.” The second thing I did was make sure that there was text in the slides so that he would read the main ideas. Everyone has different degrees of tolerance for spoken and written words in a presentation – try to find out ahead of time what is best for your audience. And respect the fact that there is always a mixture of learning styles in every audience.


What did your slides look like in that case?

I tried to keep the key information in text. There were multiple bullets on my slides. A typical amount of words in a slide would be title, sub-title, three bullet points and a final point, so they were not swarming with information.

In my slides the title is the key point I am trying to communicate. The sub-title is a modifier. The key facts are in the bullets. If I can’t get the idea across clearly in one slide then I do it in two. I don’t put seven words or 100 words on a slide because it won’t communicate.


How do you approach finding out about the audience?

Always start by using your friends. A lot of scientists are the stars of their own heroic epic – the one that is running in the back of their mind. In their mental image of Act Three, the republic is about to fail, and they are summoned by the Congress to testify about the crisis. They imagine themselves standing in front of the relevant committee, laying out all the myriad technical difficulties. After their testimony the chairman says, “The veil has been lifted from our eyes. How big a check should we write?” You and I both know that never happens. Instead, it turns out that friends talk to friends, and people talk to people, creating lasting relationships. In the case of the CEO, I had a friend who trusted me to present to his CEO. He knew that the CEO got his information from reading, so that my best action was to get him something to read. I asked. My friend helped me and made the situation work well. Ask questions, listen to the answers. Don’t assume you know everything, or that every situation is the same.


What do scientists need to keep in mind when they talk to people in Washington?

There’s a different approach for briefing a senator from that of talking  to one of their staffers. The staffer’s job is to tell the senator what he or she needs to know so they can make a decision. Staffers are more likely to take more time with you and ask a lot of questions. You can bring a lot of information, but you’ve got to be able to drill it into their heads within 20 minutes. You need to figure out how to give them information so that they can give it back to you, because if they can give information back to you, then they can convey it accurately to the Senator.

Senators have a different job. They have a lot less time. You get maybe ten minutes if you are lucky. Senators will want to know why am I talking to you? What information do I need to know? Am I going to need to make a decision? What action do I take? The action might be to book a committee hearing. It might be to start working on draft legislation. They just want to know what decision to make based on the information you have provided. It’s about meeting their needs; it’s not about the science.


So we come back to understanding the needs of your audience.

I have met with staffers who didn’t turn out to be particularly interested in the information I was prepared to talk about. So I start my meetings with staffers by asking them what they want to get out of the meeting. Based on the answer, I figure out what to tell them.

One of the most important lessons for a scientist is to listen for context so you can tailor what you say. You may have brought 100 slides with you but based on how they respond to your initial questions, you may just talk to them for 15 minutes, or not use any slides. That might be more effective and useful than drilling into the detailed information. If you leave the slides for the staffer and if they like what you are saying, they will look at them.

If it turns out that what they really want to get out of this is just background information,, then you would talk to them like you would talk to a freshmen 201 class – walk through the basics. If they come in apologizing for being 20 minutes late and telling you it’s been a crazy day but they know they need to take this meeting with you, then you better be able to drill down quickly because you may only get a few minutes. If you get their attention and they really like what you’re talking about then they will probably ask you back.


What are some of your favorite iconic presentation moments?

In my world a lot of people view enhanced oil recovery with carbon dioxide as a bridge to a de-carbonized future of fuels. It provides an initial activity where people can keep carbon out of the atmosphere and make money. As you do so, you reduce emissions and that provides the grounds both technically and financially to keep reducing the emissions. They view enhanced oil recovery as a bridge, meaning it starts, and then it ends; it’s simple and short lived. So for a while I was giving a talk called, “The View from the Bridge”. It allowed me to engage the metaphor, saying things like, “How long is the bridge, how wide is the bridge and what is it made out of?” I used that image to anchor parts of the discussion in a way that signposted the information I was giving in each part of the talk.

Another tough question I face a lot is, “What does a national lab do?”. This is a very complex and difficult topic and its something very few people outside the lab system understand. I like to use as an iconic image of the space shuttle as it is lifting off. I point to the booster rockets and say, “That’s the national lab,” and I point to the shuttle and say, “That’s you”. You have a mission and and the national lab’s job is to help you get your mission done. It is an iconic image and it allows people to understand the essence of the relationship. These little icons communicate the sort of sensibility around complicated issues, but ultimately it can’t become too cutesy about the metaphor as opposed to what you are trying to communicate.

I have a line that I use a lot when I’m diving deep into discussions about underground carbon storage: “This is not rocket science, it is rock science.” It gives the audience a brief pause so they can laugh, and pull the folks back who might have been thinking about something else, anchoring them to the topic. I think that using a turn of phrase or iconic image or iconic story can anchor an audience in a similar way.


How does the ability to champion science and communicate effectively change the world?

Sometimes it can be quite powerful Let’s go back to the Rob Socolow story. After Tony Blair wrote him a thank you letter for his wedge explanation of climate issues, Tony was hosting the G8. He made the G8 agenda about poverty in Africa and climate change because he finally got it. And that’s the value of championing science. When someone can take a very complicated idea and distill it to something that people can ingest, then they can take action. The focus of championing science should be the outcome you want, as opposed to your own intelligence or the sophistication of your story.

Rob saw two problems. A lot of people were concerned that economic development would ultimately put too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If you take two billion poor people out of poverty and then give them an American lifestyle, that would be bad for the atmosphere. So economic development was supposedly in conflict with a safe atmosphere, and Rob didn’t accept that.

Rob said, “Let’s look at what minimum happy requirements are.” A bunch of social science describes what is required to be happy. You need stuff like an electric bicycle, you don’t need a Rolls Royce. An electric bicycle makes it easier for people who walk, it makes their life a lot easier. Happy includes things like a cooking stove. If you can cook on a stove, your life is better. Rob said, “If you take two billion people who today are below the two dollars-a-day economic level, and then give them that level of energy services – an electric bike, cooking fuel, refrigeration, lights at night so they can study for school – the carbon emissions would be a tiny fraction of what people in the developed in the developed are causing today.” He argued you could lift a whole lot of people out of poverty without doing any significant damage to the atmosphere.

Now that Rob had a clear way to think about the out-of-poverty issue, he asked, “Whose responsibility is it to fix this problem?” Right now the world has a problem with nation states in this regard. America says “It’s not our problem, it’s China’s problem”. And China says, “Hey you have been emitting greenhouse gases from high energy use for 150 years and we’re still developing – it’s your job to solve it”. But Rob said that is not the most useful way to think about it. A better way to think about this is that rich people emit carbon no matter where they live. He suggested said that rich people in all countries should pay for managing emissions, not the poor people – and not any particular countries.

In this way Rob made it clear that there is a burden that is acceptable. Since the rich around the world have emitted and are emitting still, the burden to reduce emissions is theirs. That solution was borne out of the wicked problem of how do you allow continued economic development for all people, without damaging the atmosphere. Who needs to pay for it? The World Bank hasn’t yet organized their funding scheme around this approach, but Rob made an excellent start by exposing the important aspects of the problem.