Talking to the media: 12 top tips for scientists

11 Sep 2015's Elaine Burke interviewing CoderDojo Foundation CEO Mary Moloney at Inspirefest 2015. Photo: Conor McCabe Photography

Science communicators Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Dr Shane Bergin share their top tips for scientists who want to communicate their work effectively to the wider public.

Science poorly told is science poorly done. Whether it’s composing a compelling argument for funding your ideas or distilling your findings in papers and conference talks, researchers continuously rely on their ability to communicate.

However, despite this broad range of communication skills, many scientists feel uncomfortable or unpractised in sharing their knowledge with the wider public.

This is understandable. Since time immemorial, ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ has mainly related to the shoulders of those working in your field of research. As academics, we tend to only communicate with our peers, but in order to broaden the impact of scientific research we need to broaden our reach.

There are a number of reasons why scientists should promote their work to the public. In recent years, developing the scientific literacy of citizens has become an increasingly important part of public policy worldwide, as illustrated by Science Education for Responsible Citizenship released by the EU in 2015 or Project 2061 in the US, and more and more governments see the importance of promoting science and technology subjects. In addition, many issues are being debated in the public area – often without due regard for scientific facts.

‘Many scientists feel uncomfortable or unpractised in sharing their knowledge with the wider public’

For example, while the vast majority of scientists will tell you global warming is real and we are causing it, a small minority disagree and it is difficult for the public to decide who to believe. Similarly, issues like immunisation or renewable energies can sometimes be wildly distorted. In order to ensure the media presents accurate accounts of research, it is important that scientists enter into public conversations and interviews that can be a positive way of communicating your work.

As researchers and science communicators, we’ve been on both sides of the microphone. As both interviewers and interviewees, we have collated some top tips that we hope will provide a helpful guide for scientists (from professor to post-graduate student) to share their motivation, experiences, knowledge, and wonder with the public.

1. Get your message out there

It has never been easier for scientists to connect with the world outside their laboratories or lecture halls. Smart use of social media and your personal website can create platforms for you to voice an opinion or share your results. If you have an idea or want to respond to an item that’s been covered, you can connect with journalists or broadcasters. Your considered, expert opinion is valuable and, at present, is rare!

If your expertise is the surface energy of two-dimensional dichalcogenides, you’ll need to practise sharing the essentials of what you do. Dichalcogenides? who wouldn’t want to know what that means?!

Oftentimes, scientists are reticent about speaking about anything except their well-defined area of research, but don’t be afraid to speak about things that relate to your broader discipline. As a physicist, chemist, engineer, etc, you are more than qualified to comment.

2. What is the purpose of the interview?

Be it for print, online, or broadcast, ask the interviewer the basis of the interview and what content they envisage getting from it. Is this interview around a particular theme for a piece? Who else is being included? Is it a lifestyle piece on you and/or your research? This will help you prepare your ideas and conversations.

3. What do you want to say?

With the context in mind, consider the most important message you want to communicate. Be clear in your own mind of the main message you would like to get across and include a few key points that you want to include in your conversation.

You can mention these to the interviewer beforehand so you’re both prepared for the direction the interview will take.

4. Have an ‘elevator pitch’

Have a 90-second pitch ready. It won’t be the basis of the interview, but the person asking questions needs to have a broad picture of your work. It will also help you to hone in on the main message of your work – as well as coming in handy when your friends ask, ‘So, what exactly is your research about?’

5. Minimise jargon

Image via Flickr/stavos

Image via Flickr/stavos

Most of those who are not in your exact field will be unfamiliar with the language that seems second nature to you. If you have to keep it in, introduce it as specific language and explain it immediately after mentioning it. Remember that this interview is not for your colleagues to read or hear, but rather for someone who is totally unfamiliar with your work and, to that end, they should be able to understand the conversation. It’s the age-old adage of ‘can you explain it to your granny?’

6. Colour the conversation

Use analogies. The best way people can learn about something new is to relate it to something they are already familiar with. You are the most knowledgeable person about this subject and you are the most qualified to create your own analogies.

For example, in July 2015, an extra ‘leap’ second was added to the clock to accommodate the fact that the Earth’s spin is slowing. This is due to the drag of the moon on the Earth’s oceans (the tide). The effect is that the moon is now leaving us… slowly. It’s inching away at the same rate your fingernails grow – around 3cm per year.

7. Have a catchphrase

Prepare a few phrases that capture your work. This is not intended to minimise the importance of your research, but rather to engage a wider audience in your work.

For example, “The secret to ever-lasting youth is being held by bats,” neatly introduced Prof Emma Teeling’s TedX Dublin talk on the secret of the bat genome. Similarly, Prof Shane O Meara’s writing on The Neuroscience of Interrogation: Why Torture Doesn’t Work introduces his work on neuroscience to the non-scientific audience.

8. Set homework for the interviewer

Send the interviewer any newspaper articles, blogs, links to your webpage, or papers that might be appropriate to the interview in advance. The more they know the better questions they can ask you. These may be part of your online academic account so it’s important you keep this updated.

9. Be yourself

It may be clichéd, but it is incredibly important that both the interviewer and the audience or reader believe your enthusiasm and passion for your work. A good science communicator can make the most abstract concept sound relevant and exciting if spoken about with genuine interest. That doesn’t mean you need to add jazz hands to your conversations – just engage in the conversation like it’s a new and interested PhD student in your lab.

10. Nature abhors a vacuum (of talk)

Let the interviewer take the lead. If the interviewer is leaving a silence it’s there for a reason. Take it as a cue to keep talking about your work. If, however, you are being interrupted, try to shorten your responses. Good communication makes the most of good rapport, so it can be helpful to have time beforehand to informally chat with the interviewer.

11. Remember: if it’s not live, it will be edited

Top tips for scientists in media

Apart from during a live broadcast, don’t worry about making a mistake or repeating yourself. Prerecorded interviews come to life in the edit, so if you’re not happy with what you’re saying just stop, let the interviewer know, and start again. If it is for live broadcast rehearse questions you pre-empt with your colleagues, make sure you are comfortable with the microphone, ensure you have water to hand, and bring one card of important bullet points with you.

12. How clean is your lab?

If this is an interview to be recorded for TV or internet footage, try to ensure that your lab or office is ready for filming. This doesn’t mean that all surfaces are immaculate – just that any space that might be filmed is looking its best. It’s also helpful for filming that the lab looks busy, so try to make sure all of your colleagues aren’t on lunch when the crew are recording!

The importance of public understanding

The communicative scientist is the successful one. Whilst research is driven by the innate curiosity scientists have for their field, funding is dependent on how it impacts society – be it economic or otherwise. Developing your ability to connect what you do as a scientist with the wider world can demonstrate the impact of your work. National programmes (including Science Foundation Ireland) are highlighting more and more the need for societies that are scientifically aware.

Remember what you do is amazing and unfamiliar to the non-scientific audience. Don’t be afraid of telling them what it is that interests you, what prompted you to enter this field and what keeps you engaged in your research. Talk to them not just about the end results but the scientific process that grounds your work.

‘Developing your ability to connect what you do as a scientist with the wider world can demonstrate the impact of your work’

In a society where public debate on scientific issues is often muddied, the more scientists getting involved in talking to young people and to the public the more informed our society will be. Thinking about the processes scientists use to come to their conclusions is, perhaps, far more empowering for citizens who are bombarded with pseudo-science and don’t know who or what to believe. Enjoy bringing your work to a new and interested group of learners.

By Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin and Dr Shane Bergin

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin is a lecturer in the School of Mathematics and Statistics in UCD. She is a presenter of The Science Squad TV show on RTÉ One and has been promoting and communicating science since she graduated with her BSc Theoretical Physics in 2005. 

Dr Shane Bergin is a physics lecturer in Trinity College Dublin. He previously presented Bright Sparks, an eight-part science documentary that aired on RTÉ Radio 1 in 2015.

Dr Bergin and Dr Ní Shúilleabháin are the directors of City of Physics, a physics outreach campaign coming to Dublin in late October that will promote the wonder of physics in public places.

Main image and body image via Shutterstock