Last month, courtesy of a scholarship from MESA to cover registration, I was fortunate enough to attend the Science Media Centre’s SAVVY workshop in Auckland. Twelve researchers, including myself, participated in the two-day long media skills workshop, and initially I have to say I felt a bit out of my depth when meeting my cohort; the participants had a broad range of prior experience with the media (nearly all more than myself), came from a wide range of disciplines and research institutions, and ranged from PhD students and early to mid-career researchers, to professors and Heads of Department. The diversity of the group however was a definite asset, and it was somewhat reassuring to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt out of my comfort zone – even the most experienced of the workshop participants seemed to have a few nerves during on-camera practice interviews.Auckland SAVVY participants on the Breakfast couch inside TVNZ Studio 4 [reproduced from here]
Over two days, we each developed media pitches on our own research, which we presented to a panel of journalists on the second day. Despite my suspicions being confirmed that materials science is somewhat harder to sell to the media and the public than some other fields of science, SAVVY was definitely a valuable experience. The focus was very much on media skills, and as such a fair portion of the workshop was devoted to learning about how the media works; this included a visit to TVNZ and a media Q&A panel with journalists from both television and print media. Many of the skills developed, however, were more general communication skills, and as such are definitely applicable to any form of science communication. At this point I’d like to share a few pieces of advice I picked up over the workshop. These aren’t necessarily key take-home messages from SAVVY, but they’re tidbits that really resonated with me.
1. When talking to the media, you are talking to the sofa people.
The sofa people being your average people who sit on the sofa in the evening and channel surf. The point is, that when talking about your science, you need to think about who your audience is and find a way to engage with them. It’s not actually the interviewer that you are speaking to – it’s the public who are going to watch that interview.
2. ‘Eliminate the latinate’ or ‘cut the crap’.
Avoid jargon. This one seems obvious, but what didn’t occur to me is that the ‘jargon’ is not necessarily just niche scientific terms, but can just be overly complicated language. The way we’re trained to communicate as scientists means that we regularly use a lot of ‘big words’ (eg. utilise, generate, parameters, propagate, phenomenon) when a simpler expression (eg. use, make, limits, spread, event) would do just as well, and probably make us sound a lot less pretentious.
3. Beware the tyranny of precision.
I work with conducting polymers. I hate referring to my polymers as ‘plastics’ when trying to explain my research to a non-science person… it’s just so imprecise! But sometimes you just have to sacrifice precision or your audience will tune out after three words because they don’t understand what you’re talking about. I know, it’s hard to do.
So that’s it from me. Many thanks go to MESA and to the Science Media Centre for giving me the opportunity to attend SAVVY. Thanks in particular to the workshop facilitators, Michael Brown, Peter Griffin and Dacia Herbulock, whose advice and feedback was invaluable. I would highly recommend SAVVY to anyone in working in science who ever talks to anyone outside their field. Which, apart from some reclusive mathematicians, is pretty much everyone.