Over the years, I’ve come to realize that in the academic world – and many other worlds – reliability and trust is dependent not on your abilities, but your title.

Are you:

A doctor?
A lawyer?
A specialist?
A manager?
An associate?
A representative?

Depending on the answer, you may find yourself being lauded obsequiously, disregarded as obsolete, or worse, shunned as an outcast.

It’s all been rather odd to me as throughout my academic career, I never really had a title.  In the eyes of my official employer, I was simply a research associate, an obeisant position.  But to offer more credibility to my outlandish style – and to obfuscate the fact that I didn’t have an academic PhD – I was given other professional designations.  Many were obtuse and some simply obscure but they always seemed to work to keep those with whom I interacted sated.

Then, one day about five years ago, I was anointed with a title that opened up a new vocational avenue.  Instead of an academic accolade, this attention-grabbing name was meant solely for public.  Even then, unlike familiar titles such as expert, consultant, and advisor, this was so outside-the-box that there was little hope for optimism.

“The Germ Guy”

There was no mention of a job description, no obvious association with an institution or organization, and certainly little to no sense of what my function would be other than perhaps something to do with germs. It was a cute name that nicely rolled off the tongue.

Somehow, it worked and set me off on this strange path which has enriched me in ways I could never have imagined.

Since the dawn of The Germ Guy, I’ve acquired several other titles, such as Germevangelist, Germs Relationship Therapist, Germs Correspondent and perhaps my favorite, Germs Pundit.  Yet regardless of the actual designation, there is one thing that remains constant:  me.

I hadn’t given it much thought until a few weeks ago when I was asked to talk about my work in the public to a group of academically trained experts in the field of infection prevention and control.  At first I was concerned that there might not be any interest.  After all, why would academics be interested in listening to a guy without a doctorate whose claim to fame was a book about a dysfunctional relationship with germs?

As I reflected about what to offer in terms of educational development, I realized that there was something that needed to be shared.  This wasn’t a scientific finding or a new direction for research.  This was instead a call to all in attendance to find a way to share the message of keeping patients safe in a way that was familiar to me but was completely unknown to them.  Quite simply, they needed to find a way to communicate with the public using sciPOP.

But before they could do that, they needed to learn more about how to find a new title – a public one – that represented each individual as well as his or her vocation.

The talk went so well that it occurred to me that we all need to undergo a similar exercise.  Instead of being defined based on job identify and professional expertise, we all have another title inside us.  For me, it was The Germ Guy.  For you…what might it be?

To start, look in the mirror.  What do you see (other than 10% human and 90% germs)? What makes you…well…you?  It’s an entirely scary psychological task and admittedly, took me many years before I was ready to do it.  Yet, when you start to actually analyze yourself, you begin to realize what traits are specific to you and how they work together.  All put together, the result is a description of who you are and what you can offer to the world.

In short, it’s your brand.

In my previous sciPOP post, I discussed the fundamental concept of story re-telling.  Yet I didn’t explain how to accomplish this…with good reason.  It’s all based on your brand.  Depending on its nature, you will share the same information in a completely different manner.  If you have several brands, then you might have a number of options to display your skill, style, and savvy…even if it is sardonically laced with alliteration.

Once you have the traits that make up your brand, list them and then lay them out in front of you.  You’ll see a number of different nouns and adjectives that offer an brand overview.  Now, using this collection of words, come up with a name that fits everything.

This is your title.

It can be serious or comedic; quaint or quirky; overt or sublime.  Whatever best describes that brand in a way that resonates with you and the public.  It may require a few tries and you may not be happy with the most effective name (I personally would have preferred The Microbial Maven over The Germ Guy).  Eventually, you will find the one that is right for you.

As for whether this works, here are a few ideas I’ve idealized with colleagues over the years.  I’m sure you will be able to quickly identify with these titles and their brand.

The Observant Ornithologist
The Captain of Carburetors
The Tort Teller
The Pedagogic Poet

Once you have your brand and title in place, you can start the story re-telling and enjoy the ride.  Admittedly, it will be slow at first but as you gain a following, you will find the journey will become a pleasurable experience.  And as I have found out over the last year, you will not only bring more to the public, but you may also make a difference as well.

Normally, I want to know your thoughts.  This time, however, I’d just like to know one thing:  what is your title?

(This is the second post of the sciPOP series and hope that it continues to keep you interested and engaged)