19 June 2015
By Mary Catherine Adams
This is the second in a three-part series answering scientists’ frequently-asked questions about working with the media. This FAQ series accompanies the Working with the Media webinar, offered by AGU’s Sharing Science program on May 29. Read part one and part three.
- How should I prepare for an interview?
- How do I refine my key messages?
- How do I present research in a way that’s easily understood without compromising scientific integrity?
- What are some best practices for explaining science in ways that journalists and the general public will understand?
- What is jargon and how do I avoid it?
- What are sound bites and how do I craft good ones?
- What are some tips for telling an engaging story about my science?
- What is social math and how can I use it?
- How much detail should I go into when speaking with reporters?
- How much do I need to “dumb down” the science?
- What are some best practices for responding to reporters’ requests for information?
- How can I establish and nurture successful long-term relationships with journalists?
- How do I pitch a story to a journalist?
- How should I prepare for Q&A?
1. How should I prepare for an interview?
When a reporter contacts you to schedule an interview, find out what the format will be. Is it an in-person, phone, radio or TV interview? Who is the person doing the interview? About how long will it be? If it’s for TV or radio, is the interview being taped or is it live?
Then, write and rehearse your key messages – the main thoughts you want to share during the interview. Practice repeating them until you can rattle off the essentials but don’t memorize them word-for-word.
If you’re doing an interview by phone, find a quiet room to use and put a “Do not Disturb” sign on the door. Have your notes in front of you during the call so you can use them as a reference. Whenever possible, use a landline phone for better call quality. (You wouldn’t want to lose your cell phone signal in the middle of a live radio interview.) And turn off your cell phone ringer.
If you’re doing a radio interview, practice delivering your messages over the phone to a friend before the interview. Can your friend hear you okay? Are you speaking too fast or too slow? Too loud? Too softly? Also, try standing up and smiling while you’re on the phone. Often, your posture comes through over the phone.
If you’re doing a TV interview, practice delivering your messages in a mirror. Take note of any strange facial expressions you make. Aim to be animated, but avoid flailing your arms. Also, wear plain clothes and basic makeup. Avoid wearing stripes, which don’t do well on TV, and green, which will present problems if they want to use a green screen to superimpose a background behind you.
2. How do I refine my key messages?
The Share Science in the News section of AGU’s Sharing Science website has a number of tools to help you prepare. Specifically, you can download and print a copy of AGU’s Message Worksheet to help you develop your “take-home” messages – the key points you want to emphasize and reiterate during an interview.
Start by gathering your thoughts. What are the 2-3 main things you want to share during the interview? Write them down in plain language, avoiding any jargon. As you write, keep in mind that your audience’s only experience with science might be high school chemistry. Be sure to include relevant stories, anecdotes and metaphors. Also make sure you answer the two important questions all journalists will want answered: What did you find and why does it matter?
Once you’ve written (and perhaps re-written) your main messages, read them aloud to a friend. Ask that friend to point out any jargon that you may have missed. Also ask them, “Does this make sense?” Then, finalize your messages. Practice saying them out loud until you can repeat them on demand, but avoid memorizing them word-for-word, lest you sound like a robot.
3. How do I present research in a way that’s easily understood without compromising scientific integrity?
“One should aim not at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand.” –Quintilian
You do not have to compromise accuracy to say things simply. Rather, always use the simplest word possible, and, as Thomas Jefferson said, “Never [use] two words when one will do.” Yes, it’s important to use the most correct words when describing scientific research, but if you use words that are so specialized that only a tiny subset of people truly understand their meanings, you are leaving the door open to being misunderstood by everyone else. Be simple and you will maximize the chances of journalists getting your story right.
4. What are some best practices for explaining science in ways that journalists and the general public will understand?
- Tell stories. People are hard-wired to understand and retain information better when they hear it in story form, rather than as a listing of facts.
- Use an analogy. Come up with a good analogy to explain your research.
- Make it personal. Tell stories and anecdotes from the field. Or, relate your science to your everyday life or the local issues in your community.
- Use simple terms. Jargon obfuscates. Why risk being understood? Instead, do all you can to make sure you convey accurate science by using clear, simple terms to describe your science.
- Practice talking to friends. Practice in person and over the phone. Do they understand what you’re saying? What questions do they have after you speak? Can they hear you okay over the phone?
5. What is jargon and how do I avoid it?
Jargon is the specialized language that experts use to communicate with others in their field. There are two types of jargon: 1) technical terms, including acronyms, that only those within the field are familiar with and 2) words that have two meanings – a meaning within your field and a “lay” meaning. Scientists should be aware of both types of jargon and spend some time thinking about simple and clear terms they can use in place of jargon.
Why is this so important? A journalist confused by the terms you use might get things wrong. The onus is on you to help them get it right. While some journalists might be very familiar with science terminology, you should always strive to make your remarks intelligible to all.
6. What are sound bites and how do I craft good ones?
A sound bite is a short thought or clever phrase that artfully summarizes a thought. Sound bites are the 5- to 10-second clips that appear in TV interviews, or the one-sentence quotes that appear in stories. Often, they are extracted from a longer interview. A sound bite that appears in a story might be something that was said off the cuff, or a prepared thought carefully crafted before an interview.
Famous examples of sound bites include:
- S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt describing December 8, 1941, as “a date which will live in infamy” in a speech.
- Neil Armstrong’s infamous first words from the surface of the moon: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”
- “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” as Carl Sagan describes our home planet in Cosmos.
You don’t have to be a master orator, however, to craft a good sound bite. There are simple things you can do. For example, instead of describing an object by listing its dimensions, compare it to a common household object: “The instrument is about the size of a juice box.”
Or, use social math to make intangible sums tangible: “The rocket weighs as much as about 400 elephants.”
Tell stories and paint pictures with your words. You might be surprised to find that sound bites will come naturally. For example, “Getting that lava sample without scorching my fingers was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” or “When I woke up that morning, I didn’t expect to be canoeing across a raging river just a few hours later.”
Lastly, share your passion for your work. Human emotions add dimensions to stories. Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts such as, “We saw for the very first time that unicorns really do exist, and that was awesome!”
7. What are some tips for telling an engaging story about my science?
Storytelling is a very powerful and effective tool that scientists can use to talk about their work. Human brains are hard-wired to connect to stories. Research has shown that people’s brains light up more for narratives than listings of facts. They also retain information better and longer.
People also connect better when storytellers use action words or describe texture using words such as slippery, gritty, and slimy. When you use these words, people’s brains will respond as though they were touching objects with those textures.
Stories are also simple. They have a beginning, a middle and an ending. You don’t need to be Stephen King or Ernest Hemingway to tell a good story – you just need to practice.
Here are four narrative themes that lend themselves well to science tales, as described in Three tips for sharing science with any audience on AGU’s The Plainspoken Scientist blog:
- Journey – A journey is a story about travel. Voyaging to Antarctica to study glaciers, or to Chile to look at earthquakes, or even performing fieldwork within range of home are science journeys.
- Quest – Similar to a journey, a quest is about seeking answers – something all researchers do. In a quest story, make sure to include the trials and triumphs that occurred along the way to a new discovery.
- Mystery – Science and mystery naturally go together. Think about all the science-based dramas on television, such as CSI. Crafting a story about studying ice cores to reveal clues about Earth’s atmospheric history is an example.
- Stranger comes to town – This is when someone, or something, unexpected enters the scene. This can be very similar to a mystery, but is based on a specific event. Examples of science strangers include a tsunami or a destructive super storm.
For more tips on telling good stories, read these blog posts on The Plainspoken Scientist:
- From Silent Spring to . . . Jaws? Using Stories to Communicate Science
- Want to Really Communicate Your Science to the Public? Go on a Journey and They’ll Follow
- Thinking of giving a TEDx-style talk? Do it – but with plenty of preparation!
- Three tips for sharing science with any audience
8. What is social math and how can I use it?
Social math is describing a value using a common object of known size in place of hard numbers. Social math can make intangible sums more tangible for readers. Here is an example from NASA.gov of the Saturn V rocket, which took astronauts to the moon, described using social math:
“The Saturn V rocket was 111 meters (363 feet) tall, about the height of a 36-story-tall building, and 18 meters (60 feet) taller than the Statue of Liberty. Fully fueled for liftoff, the Saturn V weighed 2.8 million kilograms (6.2 million pounds), the weight of about 400 elephants.
The rocket generated 34.5 million newtons (7.6 million pounds) of thrust at launch, creating more power than 85 Hoover Dams. A car that gets 48 kilometers (30 miles) to the gallon could drive around the world around 800 times with the amount of fuel the Saturn V used for a lunar landing mission.
It could launch about 118,000 kilograms (130 tons) into Earth orbit. That’s about as much weight as 10 school buses. The Saturn V could launch about 43,500 kilograms (50 tons) to the moon. That’s about the same as four school buses.”
9. How much detail should I go into when speaking with reporters?
It always helps to prepare several key messages before speaking with a reporter. Be sure to answer these two questions in your messages: “What did you find?” and “Why should my readers care?” We recommend creating several messages that go into varying levels of detail. First, start with a 2-3 sentence, or 30-second, summary of your news.
Second, jot down 3 (or so) more detailed examples that relate back to your summary. In this way, your messages are layered, but all relate. Then, let the reporter decide the level of detail he or she wants to get to. No matter what he or she asks, you’ll be prepared with quick, clear messages for him or her to use.
When it doubt, always focus on the bigger picture. For example, if you used 15 audio sensors to record the sound of a lightning strike, mention that those 15 sensors were placed five feet apart in a semi-circle around the strike zone, but don’t bother with the make, model and serial number of each sensor. What’s important in this example is being able to paint a rough picture so that a reader could imagine himself or herself witnessing the experiment, not re-creating it.
10. How much do I need to “dumb down” the science?
As scientist Sarah Beatty put it during a presentation at the 2015 Joint Assembly, “It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about respecting the language of the audience.”
We never encourage scientist to “dumb down” their work. Instead, we encourage you to use simple, clear terms – terms that anyone can understand. Avoid using scientific jargon when a simpler word or phrase will do. For example, say “human-caused” instead of “anthropogenic” and say “carbon dioxide” instead of “CO2.” Be mindful also of words that have two meanings. For example, when most people hear the word “driver,” they think of a golf club or a person operating a car rather than an “influential factor.”
Also, use analogies. Tell stories. Rather than rely on charts, graphs, and numbers that might not translate, paint pictures with your words and share anecdotes from the field. For more advice from a scientist’s point of view, read “Scientists should speak simply to other scientists, too” by PhD scientist Ilissa Ocko on AGU’s The Plainspoken Scientist blog.
Or, if you need more convincing yet, read North Carolina State University science writer and public information officer Matt Shipman’s rant “No, Writing Intelligibly Is Not ‘Dumbing It Down’” at scilogs.com.
11. What are some best practices for responding to reporters’ requests for information?
Reporters are often working on a short turnaround and need information as soon as they can get it. The news cycle is very fast: you might have minutes or hours to get back them, not days. There are a handful of mutually beneficial things you can do when a reporter calls or emails:
- Gather Your Thoughts – If a reporter calls you out of the blue and you need some time to collect your thoughts, ask if you can call back. Be respectful of his or her time and call back when you say you will.
- Be Timely – Always ask reporters when their deadlines are. Make sure to get back to them in plenty of time so that they can include your information in their stories before they send it off to their editors.
- Ask Questions – It is okay to ask a reporter what his or her story is about. This will help you provide answers that are in context.
- Suggest Other Sources – Provide reporters with other sources who can provide comments or offer supplemental information.
- Offer visuals, audio or other multimedia – If you have photos or videos from the field and you own the copyright, offer them to reporters to use.
12. How can I establish and nurture successful long-term relationships with journalists?
The best way to start a successful relationship with a journalist is to be a good source if and when you work with them. Respect their deadlines. Get back to them when you say you will. Offer them visuals (photos and videos) to use with their stories. Be available for follow-up questions. And accept that you most likely will not be allowed to review their story before it is printed.
To stay connected in the long term (or to initiate a connection) let the journalist know when you have a new paper coming out. Or, invite him or her to visit your lab or go out for a cup of coffee. Also, let the journalist know that you are available to comment on stories about other research. Lastly, you can also contact him or her about new things going on in your field that might not be related to your research. This is in invaluable for reporters who often have to come up with story ideas on their own.
13. How do I pitch a story to a journalist?
If you have newsworthy research or findings you believe would be of interest to journalists, you can “pitch” the story to them. If you are on familiar terms with a journalist, feel free to call or email him or her, but be sure to let your press office know first before you reach out especially if you are working together on a press release. You don’t want to undermine the press office’s work.
Be respectful of the journalist’s time and be prepared before you call. Have a brief, succinct summary of the news ready to share. Be sure to answer these two questions in your summary: “What is the news?” and “Why should the journalist and his or her readers care?” If you can answer these two questions, a journalist should be able to tell you within a minute of chatting whether he or she is interested.
If you are not on familiar terms with any journalists, contact your press office. Or, you can always contact AGU’s Public Information office at firstname.lastname@example.org. These offices can help you determine whether your results are newsworthy and also work with you to find the best way to share the news with the press. This might mean issuing a press release, writing a blog post, calling a journalist your press officer knows, sharing the news on social media, organizing a press conference, or more.
For more information on working with your press office and issuing press releases, visit the Share Research News page on the Sharing Science website.
14. How should I prepare for Q&A?
Practice. Practice. Practice. Think of obvious questions reporters might ask you. Then, think of how to respond to those questions. Ask a friend to role-play with you. (People love getting the chance to “play” a reporter!) Have them ask you basic questions, obvious questions, and tough questions. Practice giving your answers. Then, ask your friend for feedback. Were you understandable? Did you make strange faces when answering certain questions? Did you say something you shouldn’t have? Were you really eloquent on some answers?
In general, when answering questions from the press, tell them what you know. Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know” if you don’t know the answer to something, and explain why. For example, “Our study did not look into that,” or “That’s not my area of expertise.” Often, interviewees get into trouble when they try to answer questions they shouldn’t be answering. It’s better to say “I don’t know,” and refer them to another scientist or promise to follow up with more information, than to say something inaccurate that a journalist might then use in a story.
Also, avoid phrases that imply doubt such as “We think” and “It could be.” Use more definitive statements such as “This is the best science we have” and “It is most likely this.” Lastly, have an analogy or anecdote ready. Journalists write stories, so it’s helpful if you can tell them a story they can pass along to their readers.
–Mary Catherine Adams is a public information specialist at AGU and is co-coordinator of AGU’s Sharing Science program.