10 November 2009

Things I've Learned Talking To Cameras With Red Lights On Them

Posted by Dan Satterfield

When I was a young, dumb undergraduate in Meteorology in the fall of 1977 at the University of Oklahoma, one of the first things I absorbed with great surprise was the inherent dislike of TV weathercasters among many meteorologists and meteorology students.

It did not matter whether the TV person had a background in meteorology. (Back then many did not, it’s a bit better now) They still grumbled about how the science was dumbed down and too entertaining. I quickly joined the fray, never planning on doing that kind of work. I was going to forecast for airlines and fly free all over the world.

We need to be smarter in the way we present science.

We need to be smarter in the way we present science. Pic by Dan of the Saturn 5 Moon rocket in Huntsville Alabama.

Airline deregulation put an end to that and the chance internship — offered by the man who would become my mentor — led me into TV after all.

So, I ended up doing something that 98% of meteorologists don’t do: standing in front of thousands and giving the forecast.Yes, I’m now one of those people that the researchers and students made fun of!

In the beginning, I was determined to be different. I’d give good science and to heck with the TV stuff. Just the facts.

It’s been an eye opening 30 years in front of cameras with red lights on them.

First of all, I have never given up on giving good science. I have learned to do it smarter.

I have also learned that the audience doesn’t really want to know why you are forecasting what you’re forecasting! What they DO want to know is what the weather is going to do to them tomorrow. Not their neighbor, but them! They also want to know what the weekend is going to be like. They don’t care of it’s too far out to forecast; they want your best guess.

The National Hurricane Center folks have come to this same realisation. They have resisted mightily giving tropical storm forecasts beyond three days, but the NAVY wants 5, and really, 7.

Facts be damned! Just give us your best guess!

Now, in TV, if you do a great weathercast full of science and no one watches… it’s not worth much. It’s not worth much to advertisers, either, and you will soon  be out of a job! All the good science in the world is wasted if no one is watching, anyhow!

Many of my friends who work in meteorology away from TV understand this in part, but many do not. I have struggled with it myself for years.

Until now.

Screen shot 2009-11-10 at 20.20.51I just finished a fascinating book that told me a bunch of things I already knew, but didn’t know I did. It’s called DON’T BE SUCH A SCIENTIST by RANDY OLSON.

I consider it a must read for anyone who works in any science field. Whether or not you are on TV. Especially if you are not.

Randy Olson was a PhD. A marine biologist who went Hollywood.
I mean literally.

He chucked his career as a “soon to be” tenured professor in New England and enrolled in acting and film making classes at USC!

After a shaky start he has made quite a success of himself.

He has taught me why researchers hate TV weather guys so much. It’s the same reason that news weasels think we are all nerds back in the weather department. (OK, we are… )

I once summed up my job as, “Taking the simple and making it complex!” That’s how the newsies see it. They have a real point.

The trained scientists who go into research are used to a life where communication doesn’t matter. It is precision and facts that count. Accuracy is number one and readability, brevity, and story telling are not only not wanted or needed, they are positively looked down upon!

Olson makes a great argument that the reason that scientists are so frustrated by the public’s inability to grasp the basic facts of climate change or evolution is that the scientists are unable to communicate it. They think that if you dump out all the facts the public will take the time to read it.

Some will, but most do not have the time in their busy lives. To get a message through to people you have to present it in a way that is entertaining, engaging, and not delivered from an ivory tower.

Olson is right that the person appealing to the heart will win everytime over the guy with just the facts. Even if the facts are all correct.

The purveyors of pseudo science that tell you climate scientists are divided, or that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy, are appealing to the heart or the wallet. The scientists are giving the facts. Guess who is winning.


The scientists are, but just barely. They’re leaving a good chunk of people behind. Randy Olson has taught me that people decide things on the heart instead of the brain. I knew this before, but it never occurred to me. Does that make sense??

Don’t go feeling smug. We all do it. Even the very scientists who complain that the public just “doesn’t get it”.

The public is trying to keep their head above water and their kids in school. They do not have the time to read all those dry facts. We have to give them the information in a way that is more interesting than CSI, and more importantly, doesn’t waste their time.

It’s not that the public “doesn’t get” or “doesn’t care” about science. They do. They just aren’t going to give you their time unless you can convince them it’s worthwhile and important.

The cardinal sin for me when I do the weather is to waste someones time. They give it grudgingly. I hear weathercasters complain about getting only 3 minutes on a bad weather day. If people are giving me 3 minutes of their precious time, I will make darn sure I don’t waste it.

Winston Churchill was once asked how much he would charge for a short speech and how soon he could do it. He replied with an astronomical charge and said he could not be ready in less than 6 months. When asked jokingly what the charge and preparation time would be for an hour speech, he replied that he'd do it free next week

Winston Churchill was asked how much he would charge for a short speech, and how soon he could do it. He replied he could not be ready in less than 6 months. When asked jokingly what the charge and preparation time would be for an hour speech, he replied that he'd do it free next week!

Sir Winston Churchill understood communication.

Without doubt the best science communicator of the last century was Carl Sagan. (See my last two posts!) Dr. Olson agrees with me on this point, as you will see if you read the book.

Churchill understood. Sagan understood.

Thanks to Randy Olson’s book, I think I do, too!

This is a book that everyone who works in science or in communicating science should read. Everyone else should read it to understand why those of us with a background in Science, have such a terrible time at it!

I promise in the future to quit being such a scientist! I knew better, really.

Thank you Dr. Olson. I hope those nightmares about your acting teacher get better soon.