Use two sentences to communicate the essence of your research and aim everything you say to 12-year-olds, say science communicators at the 2014 Naturejobs Career Expo in London.
The career paths in science communication panel at the 2014 London Naturejobs Career Expo was chaired by the Naturejobs editor, Julie Gould, who was joined by Greg Foot (Freelance), Jonathan Sanderson (StoryCog), Steven Palmer (Cancer Research UK) and Celeste Biever (Chief editor for online Nature news & comment).
Steve Palmer, head of press and science communication at CRUK, runs a “media training booth” where scientists go through various training workshops. “If you’re talking to a print journalist, explain what you are doing to a 12-year-old child… If you’re talking to a TV journalist, you’ve got to explain what you do to a 5-year-old child.” This might sound harsh, but it does help scientists condense their research into a 5 minute talk, which is often all the time they get when speaking to print journalists. If you’re on TV, you’ve got to get your spiel down to 45 seconds, hence being able to explain it to a 5-year-old. The main thing scientists need to think about when communicating their research is impact: “What is the impact on society, on all those people?…Or why did you decide to start doing this in the first place? What did you want to change?” If you can communicate this in two sentences, you’re set.
Palmer suggests that all scientists should try to explain their research to their friends. “Do they understand roughly what you do? And I don’t mean in a rambling long conversation across a whole Friday night. I mean in 5 minutes. Do they get it? And let them replay it to you. If they’ve got it, you’re fine.”
Research papers and newspaper articles are written in the opposite way, says Palmer. News stories start with one message, the main message (the conclusion of the research or the impact it may/is having), and from there the journalist unpacks the details. The scientific papers always start with the question you’re trying to answer and then you slowly move to your conclusion after working through the introduction, methods and discussion sections. It’s useful to know this, says Palmer, because if you don’t invert the pyramid and give journalists your conclusions first, they might misconstrue what you are telling them.
Palmer has lots of experience when it comes to sitting in on interviews with scientists and journalists. He will sit down with the scientist and work our a plan of action: what is the main message, how are you going to communicate it etc. However, scientists tend to meander off course, which leads the journalists to find a different story, one that they weren’t there to be interviewed about.
Jonathan Sanderson thinks that not all of your science communication activities will be linked to the media. Science policy is a part of science communication, which includes dialogue events. Medical communications is a big industry in its own right, mostly self-contained, that also fits into this field. Science visitor centres, university open days, family events science festivals, “the total number of engagements across that sector is tremendous. Tens of millions each year… You don’t have to be mediated by the media.”
Greg Foot stresses that it’s all about your audience. “Some times we call it science translation.” Greg aims for 12 year-olds for everything he does, including work on Youtube. Also, not everyone is a natural communicator, “every single person has to work on it. It’s a craft, it’s a skill that you have to learn.”
Sanderson finishes off the Q&A by suggesting that everyone should find their niche form of communication. Some are better at presenting than others; some are better at writing. Try them all, see which one fits you and your research best.
Other Q&A videos from the Naturejobs Career Expo, London 2014: