Tomorrow I will be giving a six-hour boot camp to some federal government scientists and engineers. The session begins with an overview of the theory of science communication—why it’s important to communicate clearly and be understood by non-technical audiences, what the obstacles are and how a changing media environment makes it much tougher now than a decade ago when scientists and engineers were considered the masters of the universe.
The session then goes into media, how to interact with journalists, media do’s and don’ts and an overview of key communication such as storytelling and framing. Finally, it ends with playing where the scientists practice their skills with former science journalists.
This may sound like any run-of-the-mill media training exercise but it’s not. It’s specially designed for scientists and engineers who need to communicate very complex concepts to non-science journalists and requires direction from trainers who have a science journalism or communication background. Traditional media trainers have tried for years to synthesize things like climate change, the concept of evolution, safety of vaccines, and many other scientific topics to sound bites and it hasn’t worked very well.
Too often I meet scientists and engineers who have been through traditional media training, where the role-play involves trying to navigate their way through an angry 60 minute-style interview to see if they can stay on message while traversing the very rockiest of media seas. This does not reflect reality and is more often designed to scare scientists and engineers into the open arms of the PR firm every time the media calls.
In tomorrow’s session, we are going to focus on storytelling and story doing skills, rather than messages and sound bites. If a scientist and engineer can learn to communicate and illustrate a complex scientific concept to a fifth grader, they do just fine with the media. If a journalist understands the information, the chances of an accurate story increases ten-fold.
Translating complex science requires media trainers who understand the ever-changing media-sphere for science and business reporting—one in which, content in traditional media is vanishing while science blogs and online media is booming. Trainers need to be science communicators, able themselves to translate complex science into compelling and relevant stories that will resonate with those who read or watch the story. Trainers also need to know what’s making headlines now, be it advances in artificial intelligence, fusion, technology or clean energy.
Next time you consider media training you should ask yourself a couple of questions about the media trainer and their credentials. Are they former journalists who covered “Lucy the elephant’s birth at the zoo”, the local mayor and council and the odd political scandal for the vanishing traditional media? Have they been hired by organizations whose goal is to scare you into relying on a public relation’s pro who will spin your message and bill you each time the media calls? Is this media training or a sales call?
Or is your media trainer a professional science communicator or former science reporter who works in the ever changing, 24-hour media environment of the 21st Century and understands that in the new media landscape communicating science simply through story telling and story doing is what makes news.
Robert Simpson, our media trainer, is a former print, television and on-line science journalist, who has worked with over 2,000 engineers, scientists and technical experts to effectively communicate complex concepts to non-science audiences.
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