A simple tip for communicators of science – what’s the story?

Posted by sustainable on July 23, 2012 

When a scientist is asked to talk to the media, let’s say, do a radio interview, their usual first reaction is to go off and check their facts. Too often, we scientists, for I was trained as a scientist too, feel that communicating is about telling someone the facts.

And this is despite the fact (you see – many things are despite the facts) that I have never, ever, heard a scientist caught out in a radio interview through not knowing enough. More often they (we) are caught out by knowing too much, and wanting to tell it all. Keep it simple – that doesn’t mean lying, it means telling the true essence of your exciting finding without going into all the details that fascinate you but will just confuse everyone else. Please keep it simple.

An encounter with the media is an opportunity to tell a story, so think about the story. The story is often the answer to these three questions: what happened? why should we care? and what should be done about it?

So, for example, most murders are: this person was shot/stabbed/strangled in this place at this time, police are looking for the killers who are still on the loose, please lock your doors and give us any information to help catch them. That’s the simple story and the facts can fill in the details.

And a study of carbon stored in peatbogs might have a story like this: there is twenty times more carbon stored in peatbogs than in the forests that you might plant on top of them, and so we need to protect peat bogs to keep that carbon underground because otherwise the carbon released will add to global warming, so government should think of incentives for landowners to protect that peat (or penalties if they don’t – depending on how carroty or sticky you are feeling).

Facts on their own can be interesting – but facts put in context are important. And if you can be interesting and ensure your work is seen as important then you are maximising the chance that your findings will get through the defences of busy people who aren’t really paying attention. This will mean that you might make a difference and you might get another grant to do more work. Interesting? Good story? At least it’s a simple one.

Dr Mark Avery is a freelance writer on environmental matters. He writes a daily blog Standing up for Naturewww.markavery.info His book, Blogging for Nature is available from www.lulu.com/product/paperback/blogging-for-nature/15539870 and contains tips on how to blog successfully as well as 143 blogs written on wildlife and environmental matters between 2009 and 2011.