Talking the talk

31 October 2016 - By: Caroline Wood

Talking the talk

Talking the talk


By Caroline Wood

One of the SEB’s great strengths is that its members represent all levels of academia – from established professors to PhD students just embarking on their research journeys. It is therefore fitting that the day preceding the Annual Meeting is traditionally focused on our early-career members. Caroline Wood gives a round-up of this year’s event which focussed on the art of effective communication.
 

 “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” said SEB’s Head of Education and Public Affairs and science career specialist, Sarah Blackford. Opening the day’s proceedings, she stressed the importance of building a professional profile that is both appropriate and informative. This acts as a platform on which you can inform people about who you are and what you do: “If you don’t communicate your research, it doesn’t exist, so always be prepared with an engaging and positive ‘elevator pitch’ that captures your work succinctly.” Try to weave your research into a narrative - stories are how we have been conditioned historically to engage with information. Above all, don’t be disparaging about yourself. Confidence is key and ‘body language’ (the way you present yourself) says more about you than the spoken or written word alone. 

Following Sarah’s introduction to “talking the talk”, the afternoon focussed on how to go public and tackle the media. Invited speaker, Jenny Gimpel (SEB’s first press intern and currently PR manager at King’s College London), gave some really valuable insights into the “competitive but collaborative” scientific news industry. “Timing is critical if you want to publicise your work – if it’s not new, it’s not news,” she stressed. “As soon as you have a paper accepted, start preparing – liaise with your University press office, draft a press release (embargoed if necessary) and conduct interviews with journalists”. Be aware though, that writing for the media requires a different approach to a journal paper. Rather than leaving your ‘big finding’ to the end, it needs to be stressed straight away to draw your audience in. “You should also make sure your message has international relevance – particularly important when 75% of the world now owns a smartphone,” said Jenny. Keep in mind though that all interest is good; “You will really miss out if you limit yourself to the top tier,” said Jenny. “You may not think much of social media, but there is evidence that tweeting about your research leads to higher citation counts”. Consider using bold, striking infographics and compelling photographs to attract as diverse an audience as possible. 

For many scientists, however, media engagement is a daunting prospect. Yet help is at hand, including the Voice of Young Science (VOYS) network, a programme hosted by Sense About Science. They provide training and workshops to help early career scientists engage with the media and public debates. “The network has really taken on a life on its own,” said Claire Marriott (lecturer at the University of Brighton and an active VOYS ambassador). Chairing the panel session, Claire added: “Our members have responded to ‘dodgy’ media stories – such as ‘detox diets’- and asked companies for the evidence behind claims they make about their products”. 

Meanwhile, as a researcher-turned-journalist, Alun Anderson (former editor of New Scientist) was well placed to offer advice on working with the media. His “stochastic” career has included writing for Nature, Science, New Scientist, The Economist – as well as a few books of his own. He urged the young scientists not to see journalists as a ‘pest’, but as a partner. “Our goal should be to empower the public so they know what is happening in the world,” he said. Nevertheless, one has to remember that the media is an “entertainment industry” and that “if you don’t grab people’s attention, you may as well have said nothing”. But don’t become too flippant; “Remember, you are on a stage and have to be aware of the possible consequences,” advised Alun. 
The session finished with a lively panel discussion, leaving participants inspired with new outlets to get their research onto the public stage. 

Panel Discussion

Panel Discussion


Is there a conflict between what scientists and journalists want?

Alun: Journalists can miss whole areas of science – for instance, there is almost no reporting on chemistry or plant science. Yet there are so many astronomy stories even though black holes are much harder to understand. Perhaps we need to work harder at making sure people know why it is important. 

Jenny: It’s not a case of ‘us and them’: journalists need scientists and scientists need journalists. If you don’t have writers in certain areas, you won’t get the media stories, so the burden on us is to explain our work.
 
How can we balance attracting people’s attention and over-exaggerating our message?

Jenny: It is up to press officers to be vigilant about reporting correlation rather than cause-and-effect, especially for health stories. Safeguard your work and include the limitations of your study. It is better to turn a story down than risk it getting hijacked.
 
Claire: Good journalists always get a quote from an independent researcher as well.
 
Alun: Know in your own mind what you are doing and why you think it is important.
How do you go about finding stories and deciding what to write about?

Alun: Times have changed so much. Before, we would target the elite journals. But now we have the power of Google, we are more able to find all kinds of stuff. 
With so much published on the web nowadays, how can one break through the noise?

Alun: Build an audience: join something like The Conversation and get involved in discussions (https://theconversation.com/uk). 

How can public engagement benefit scientists?

Claire: The public often ask different questions than other researchers and make you better at explaining yourself. 

Alun: Public engagement helps scientists to take a step back, see the bigger picture and decide where you should be taking your research.

Should scientists get involved in contentious issues (such as GM crops)?
 
Jenny: If you have a new area of research, you have to keep talking about it or the public see it as an unfamiliar concept. One success story is three-person embryos (mitochondrial donation). This was ultimately accepted because there was a constant debate and an army of scientists ready to answer the public’s questions. 

Alun: The journalist’s role is to bring people together for discussion. GM crops are an example of an arrogant, mishandled approach. Only later did scientists come out on the benefits; before then, the public saw them as something to benefit the agricultural industry. 

What’s your top tip for becoming a science communicator?

Jenny: Listen to the radio, watch the news, read the papers but this time do it carefully and ask “Has this been done well? Is it a good example of science communication?”

Alun: Follow your passion and let it show without becoming too hippy!

Claire: Start now – take advantage of conferences for practice, for instance by interviewing people and writing blogs. 

 

Listen to the podcast reviewing this session here: 
https://soundcloud.com/claire-marriott-3/seb-july-2016  

For more information about the Voice of Young Science network, visit:
http://www.senseaboutscience.org/pages/voys.html

 
Category: Teaching and Learning
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Caroline Wood

Caroline Wood was the SEB’s 2014 science communication intern. Since then, Caroline has been a regular contributor the SEB, reporting on events and writing insightful features for our members.
Caroline has an undergraduate degree from Durham University in Cell Biology and is currently a PHD student at Sheffield University studying parasitic Striga weeds that infect food crops. You can read her blog here.