You need to prepare to get your science in the news. And when it comes to interacting with journalists, loosen up and let your emotion come through.
Guest contributor Virginia Schutte
The international conference Comm4Science: communicating science beyond the lab took place in Heidelberg in early May. Around 100 participants attended, where they met a great roster of speakers, took part in a communication workshop, and asked questions of a panel of experts.
Learning from the pros
Many invited speakers focused on when and how to get your science into popular media:
1) Get to know journalists before you have a message to share
This establishes your credibility and availability, which will be especially helpful if you become involved in any controversy. You can share story tips or introduce yourself to journalists via social media, but be careful not to contact the official channels of the media organisations that those journalists work for.
These accounts are usually monitored by a social media team that will – probably – ignore you.
You could also make yourself known to your institution’s press offices (for example, by offering to write a press brief about yourself and your areas of expertise) if you want those offices to send inquiries your way.
2) Prepare as much as possible before you deliver a message
This could be rehearsing out loud to yourself in the kitchen, on your way to work, or even in the bathroom. Thorough practice means you’re more likely to be brief, which can sometimes be painful but is extremely important. You may also increase the power of your message by clearly linking your science with an outside-the-lab outcome that you’ve thought of beforehand.
3) Give up control
Let journalists help you express your excitement! For example, identify some key metaphors in advance but then let the journalist guide an interview. Even if they ask you about things that seem off-topic, telling these stories may make your science personal for others.
Your passion plus a few prepared storytelling techniques and some flexibility will almost always result in a more compelling piece than insisting on sticking to a prepared dialogue. If you don’t want to give up all control, then produce your own materials but let journalists decide which to use for a particular piece.
Putting on a modern scicomm conference
Workshop leaders demonstrated a long list of tools scientists can use to tell an engaging story, such as comparing your work to the holy grail of knowledge in your field (for example: this study won’t cure cancer, but it lets us understand a key part of how a cure might work). Workshop participants then divided into groups by subject to craft and deliver a brief description of their study area using the tools that they had just learned.
Maximizing attendee participation was a top priority for the group of 11 Biotechnology Student Initiative students that planned the conference. They worked hard, for example, to make the conference free so that there would be no barriers to attendance.
All the organisers agreed that the most difficult part of the conference was the scheduling and other early planning. They began conference preparations in late 2014 and it was challenging at first to get a sense of how it would all work out: which speakers could come on which day, who would cater the event, and where it would be held all needed to be worked out simultaneously and before smaller details could be addressed.
The end result was better than the organisers had hoped. Not only was the team excited to see so many people in attendance and engaged with the program, but they also grew personally from planning the event. Tairi Aljand said that she was surprised by “herself and what she was able to do”. When asked to describe their conference experience in just one word, Lisa Rieble and Eva Möller said “teamwork” simultaneously and burst into laughter, as a team.
Virginia Schutte earned her ecology PhD from the University of Georgia in 2014 and now works to connect the public with science. She is a media consultant for scientists and just launched reallifesci.org. Her other posts on Naturejobs cover sexism in social media and the emotional side of leaving academia.