Communicating Your Science to Nonspecialists
Why Do It?
Traditional scientific training prepares scientists to communicate effectively within academia – at conferences or in journals, for example – but does not typically extend that training to communicating with the media or the public. It can be intimidating to share your research with the wider world, or seem not worth the time, effort, and preparation. But consider the following:
- Communicating your science increases its potential impact. The more people are aware of what you do, the more they can act on your findings in ways beyond your personal reach.
- It’s a way to stand up for your science. Public opinion affects policy decisions at all levels, including funding decisions.
- It raises your profile and can help advance your career. Positioning yourself as an expert in your area helps you get noticed by the community. Research has found that journal articles covered in the media are more likely to be cited by other scientific publications.
Working with the Media
Responding to Calls
Journalists usually work on tight deadlines, sometimes as short as a few hours. This timeline means that when you receive a call or email from a journalist, it is important to respond quickly. If you are not available for an interview within their time frame – or if you don’t respond at all – journalists are more likely to search for another expert or story than to postpone their deadline to accommodate you.
That being said, it is okay to take a little time to prepare. When reporters call or email you, ask for basic information about their story and set up a time to call them back. Helpful things to know include:
- What outlet are they writing for, and when is the deadline?
- How long would the interview be? Would it be in person, on the phone, via Skype, on camera, etc?
- For on-camera interviews, are there lighting, sound, or wardrobe needs to consider?
- For broadcast interviews (radio or TV), will the interview be live or recorded?
- What specific topic(s) would they like to discuss? If it is work you are not personally involved with, can they send some background materials?
- Why are they reporting on this topic now? What is the ‘news peg’?
- How much background do they have on this topic? Journalists reporting on science stories may be general assignment writers, scientists with MDs or PhDs, or somewhere in between.
- Can they share their questions ahead of time? Some reporters may be able to do this, but not all and not always. Even if they can provide questions, keep in mind that an interview is a conversation and unexpected questions may come up.
Often, reporters will want to interview you about research that will soon be published in a journal. If this is the case, make sure they are aware of the journal’s embargo policy and will not publish their stories until the embargo lifts.
Preparing for an Interview
So you’ve scheduled an interview with a journalist. Next, gather your thoughts on the topic of interest and craft them into 2-3 key messages – brief, specific points you’d like to make about your science and why it is important. Be prepared with details to support and further describe your key messages.
Besides outlining the points you want to share, it is important to be prepared for questions. Be ready to talk about:
- What your research findings are and how they build on prior knowledge – what’s new about your study?
- Why your research is important – so what?
- The big picture and how it affects ordinary people, whether in the short or long term
- What it would take for those implications to be realized
- Next steps, whether planned or potential
- Remaining uncertainty and limitations of the study
- Your personal interest and role in the research
If you are nervous, practice! General tips:
- Avoid jargon, and find a way to explain your work in everyday language
- Keep it simple and brief; think in “sound bites” of 30 seconds or less
- Comparisons, analogies, examples, stories, and visuals make research easier to understand
During the Interview
- Use your key messages to structure the interview
- Show enthusiasm and excitement about your work
- Use bridging phrases to control the conversation
- Admit when a question is out of your area of expertise – it is okay to say you don’t know
- Offer to rephrase or restate your answer if you find yourself getting off track, especially if recorded
- Emphasize nuance, especially when discussing controversial topics
- Remember that everything you say is open for inclusion in the reporter’s story
- Go off the record
- Speculate or answer questions you are not comfortable with
- Say ‘no comment’ – give a reason why you cannot answer, such as being the wrong person, the data not being finalized, etc., followed by what you can say
After the Interview
After the interview, follow these tips to make sure your story is told as accurately as possible:
- Give the reporter a business card or share your email signature to ensure your name, title, and institution appear correctly
- Offer to follow up with additional resources of interest or answers to questions you were unable to answer during the interview
- Make yourself available for additional questions or fact-checking
Note that reporters will rarely let you see or edit articles prior to publication. However, if there is a serious error in the final piece, follow up with a polite correction.
Genes to Genomes (2015). Tips for scientists talking to the media.
Sense about Science (2012). Standing up for science: A guide to the media for early career scientists.
The Plainspoken Scientist (September 2011). Scientists: Meet the journalists.
AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology. Working with reporters.
American Geophysical Union. You and the media: A few useful tips to keep in mind.
American Psychological Association. Frequently asked questions about working with the media.
American Psychological Association. How to work with the media.
National Association of Science Writers. Communicating science news: A guide for public information officers, scientists and physicians.
South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. How do I become ‘media savvy’?
South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. Media skills for scientists.
Muin J. Khoury et al. (May/June 2000). Challenges in communicating genetics: A public health approach. Genetics in Medicine.
Role of the PIO/Press Officer
Public information officers (PIOs), also known as press officers, facilitate interaction between scientists and journalists. They generally work in your institution’s news or communications office. Their duties include:
- Answering interview requests from journalists
- Identifying scientific experts to comment on stories
- Coordinating and scheduling interview requests, follow-up questions, and fact-checking
- Helping scientists prepare for media interviews
- Writing and distributing press releases
- Organizing media events such as press conferences and phone briefings
If you expect (or would like to encourage) media interest in some aspect of your work, such as an upcoming journal publication, give your press officer a heads-up. If the work is of interest, he or she will ask you more about it and possibly draft a press release or other material for the media, which you will have the opportunity to review.
These discussions with press officers at your own institution can be great practice for interviews with reporters, and may help you focus your key messages to resonate with the public.
The Scientist (2015). Know your PIO.
American Geophysical Union (2004). Working with your public information office.
National Association of Science Writers. Public information officers as intermediaries.
Other Ways to Share Your Work
If you have research you’re excited to share with the media or the public, there’s no need to wait for them to come to you.
ASHG is a member of the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) peer network, a grassroots group of organizations that share the goal of improving public understanding of science and its value to society. A key objective is to build bridges among its participants, creating new forums for communication and developing new partnerships for engaging the public in science education.
Brown University Science Center (May 2014). Quick guide to science communication.
AAAS Annual Meeting 2014. (February 2014). Video: Communicating science seminar.
European Molecular Biology Organization. (September 2012). Communicate your science – Five tips to boost your career.
AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology. Communication 101: Communication basics for scientists and engineers.
Social Issues Research Centre (UK) (November 2001). Guidelines on science and health communication.