Sound of science: How to tell audio stories filled with facts and fun

10 Aug 2018

Image: Colette Kinsella

Colette Kinsella has worked with the best names in radio, producing documentaries and podcasts with a scientific slant. Here, she tells Elaine Burke about her work.

Science doesn’t have to be esoteric. There’s a lot more to this great and varied discipline than the complex particle physics experiments at the Large Hadron Collider or the minute detail of how CRISPR snips up a DNA strand.

“Science is also the small things, like what happens when you pour boiling water into a cup of coffee,” said Colette Kinsella. And it’s this everyday science that captures her imagination and sets it to work.

Kinsella is currently producing a twice-weekly podcast called Science Drops, picking apart the science behind mundanities we encounter every day in 90-second bursts. The series so far answers questions such as why we sneeze, why the Earth is round and if humans are the only animals that laugh.

Packing a fact-filled scientific answer into a minute and a half isn’t easy but, Kinsella said, “I always like to challenge myself to do different formats that are a bit mad and a bit different.”

‘If you don’t hook me in the first 20 seconds, I’m not interested, so you have to get a zinger in at the top

How to tell a story with sound

Kinsella has experience in extremely short-form audio. Her earlier series, Language Bites, was similarly succinct and was picked up by 99% Invisible, a podcast fan favourite, so she knows how to script for short snippets.

“I found having those constraints made me much more creative and made me step back and look at the big picture and think, ‘How would I explain that to somebody I just met on the street?’”

She would start with that big picture and hack it down to its bare bones. “[It] gave me great discipline to really think about the accuracy of what I was talking about and, then, the storytelling – how to hook people and how to keep them listening for the rest of the 90 seconds.”

That presents a whole other challenge. “For me, personally, if you don’t hook me in the first 20 seconds, I’m not interested, so you have to get a zinger in at the top,” Kinsella instructed. Then, every couple of seconds, she uses unexpected sounds – effects, voices or even pauses in an unusual place – to keep the audience actively listening. How she constructs the episode to ensure the listener is gripped to the very end is a science in and of itself.

“You really have to think about what makes people excited. What is that one thing that I can mention at the beginning that will get people excited and go, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t know that, tell me more.’”

From German butchers to science storytelling

Kinsella describes herself as a “frustrated scientist”. She was always attracted to science but ended up training to be a health inspector, even though she never wanted to be one. She went on to teach food hygiene in Germany, which was her first go at communicating a dry topic in a way that was entertaining.

“I was always interested in the aul’ science but, you know, life takes you in weird directions,” she mused. And so, from Germany she moved to Australia, then Egypt and then back to Ireland for a master’s degree in journalism.

It was then that Kinsella found that radio was her calling. She began working in this field around the time that Radiolab was changing the game in science communication. “They just blew everything out of the water in terms of how to explain science to people, and that got me going.”

In her radio career, Kinsella has worked with the biggest names there is: BBC World Service, NPR and, on home turf, RTÉ. She produced five-minute Science Bites segments for the Derek Mooney Show, which was almost a precursor to Science Drops in terms of being a new way of presenting factual programming in an entertaining way.

For this show, Kinsella interviewed many scientists and her trick for getting them to dispense with the tough language and communicate effectively was to ask them to pretend she was 12 years old and explain appropriately.

It’s this key issue she thinks Irish scientists still wrestle with. While their US counterparts have learned to ditch the jargon and speak in colloquial terms when communicating for the public, Irish scientists have too many hang-ups about being seen as trivial if they step outside the sanctity of scientific language. “You can still be accurate without having to use that heavy, stylised scientific language, and you will still be taken seriously,” she advised.

That said, Kinsella is quick to point out the strength of scientific storytellers such as Dr Niamh Shaw, and she believes the community is getting better and better. “There’s just such exciting science storytelling going on now in Ireland, I think.”

An appetite for science

Kinsella likes to find out what makes things tick. By this, she means she wants to pick apart the pocketwatch and examine the cogs inside, seeing how one element feeds into another. It’s this inherent curiosity about the world around her – one that she shares with the scientific community – that makes her bring a “science spin” to all her work. Take Life Matters, for example, a documentary series about religion and ethics for which Kinsella delved into the science of prayer, and why we worship and form beliefs.

“I treat every project that I do as an opportunity to learn,” she said, and thus launched into a passionate tribute to the flea. Kinsella has learned all about this “amazing product of evolution” through another series she’s working on for RTÉ Radio 1 Extra, Animals. Each episode will look at one of six native Irish animals but, Kinsella said, “with a twist”.

“What I love doing is showing and learning about the other side of what we see as everyday things. So, people think of fleas as disgusting but when you look at them and the way they’re constructed, they are just the most extraordinary creatures.”

These days, Kinsella works from a desk in The Chocolate Factory in north Dublin city centre and lives in Dublin Zoo with her partner, Leo Oosterweghel, who runs the Phoenix Park attraction. Her cat, Ted, stars in her YouTube series of science stories for younger people. Though much of science programming targets this demographic, Kinsella sees a desire for science storytelling among all age groups and hopes that Science Drops can reach them.

“I think there’s a huge appetite. If you look at all the science programmes that go out on the BBC, the television documentaries, the radio documentaries – people are so into it,” she said, crediting personalities such as Brian Cox for “making science sexy and accessible”.

“Even if you don’t understand everything, if you can just grasp the bigger principles of it, you feel like you’re on the inside of knowing how the world works.”

By sharing tangible, relatable science with Science Drops, Kinsella hopes it prompts others to share the knowledge, too.

“One of my colleagues came in and he said: ‘I was randomly throwing out facts that I’ve come across on Science Drops and impressing people with them.’ … And that was what I hoped for, just general storytelling that would entertain people and make them go, ‘Oh I didn’t know that before. Interesting.’”

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic