The Media PhD

Researchers need to talk. A lot. They need to talk because they generally have ideas that are worth sharing. More importantly, they need to talk because research is done with the hope of engaging with the broader world and making some kind of impact. Sometimes they need a profile to help raise money. So talking is something researchers should do, but don’t very often (I’m not the only one who thinks so). That researchers rarely train for this part of the job is a flaw in the process that needs to be addressed.

The means of engagement with media is a bit topical for this PhD student because I’ve been off media training in preparation for the Bright Sparks PhD Pitch Night. The first thing to note was the amazing breadth of the projects being undertaken by those in the room. Given the presence of geneticists, a koala guardian, an industrial designer, an individual working in robotics, another working on growing organs for donation, a space elevator engineer (!) and someone researching the topic of music and mood disorders (and that’s not the full range), it’s fair to say those who turn up on the night are in for a hell of a ride. Anyway, talk of the other über impressive people there can wait.

What is interesting in the context of the discussion on science communication, is that no one had been offered such training in another forum as part of their research. I would happily confess I wasn’t entirely sure what we’d be in for, but I leave with a bunch of useful insights. Here, in no particular order are the lessons learned:

1. It’s not them, it’s you

Researchers often complain of the misrepresentation of science in the media. Social media may offer some direct solutions to this, but traditional media is still part of the game. Early in the piece we had the chance to vent about all the things the media gets wrong about what we do. The usual complaints were all aired – they oversimplify, sensationalise, inject emotion to distract from the science, extrapolate, focus on the angle rather than nuance, get the facts wrong and turn up with a pigeonhole they’re hoping you’ll roost in.

Clearly, that’s all true. So we’d all like the media to get the nuance and detail right, explore the topic and provide the full range of facts, naturally. Well, here’s an exercise. Take what you do ever day. Now record yourself describing it in the detail you’d like. Then you should sit down and listen back and see how long you can even maintain your own interest. We got to do something like this, and it took about 5 minutes for everyone to start oversimplifying, pushing the angle and playing on stereotypes and pre-existing expectations.

It turns out, the media do what they do for a reason. Researchers do detail. The media have the job of trying to tell a story to a total novice and keeping it interesting. So they’ve figured out there’s not a whole lot of room for nuance, uncertainty and subtle distinctions in the evolution of an idea. That is a sure fire way to lose the short attention sp.. wait, actually check out these crazy animals.

So if you’re on the high horse about the failings of the media, you might have some justification but you’d better be rugged up, because it will get cold all alone up there. If you’re failing to connect through media, the problem isn’t that they aren’t coming to you to tell your story how you’d like. The problem is you’re not working with how they’ve always done it.  You might be the one person in the history of research who convinces the whole of the media world to explore every slowly evolving nuance of what you do, but you’d have to confess that’s unlikely. So accept that the media is what it is, and figure out how to make it work.

2. Learn the Language

Researchers know a bunch of languages. There’s the lexicon for the office or lab, indecipherable to anyone beyond your little bubble. There’s the language for a journal and the language for a conference. There’s the language for the grant application that took up all that time. Well, the media has a language.

The tip is it’s simple. It is direct and to the point. It rarely relies on jargon, unless it can explain that very quickly. Each sentence typed or spoken needs to be concise, focussed and lacking in redundant clauses or asides of any kind, perhaps devoid of the usual flowering colour you shade your prose or speech with, but utilitarian in its parsimony (see what I did there?)

If language is the medium to convey your message then learn the right dialect. If you learnt a language when you wrote your first paper you can learn another one now. So think about short sentences. Another thing, no commas (d’oh!).

3. You have to do it

Think for a moment about the things you do really well. It’s probably quite a long list. Now keep in that list the things you got really good at by never doing them. Not so long now, is it? If you want to engage by writing, speaking or using any other medium you’ve got to do it. Over and over and over. Write, speak, call radio shows and do whatever you need to practise your skills. After a while, you would expect you will be much better at conveying key points effectively and quickly.

The media is waiting for people to engage, so the advice we were given was that it’s not hard to start breaking in. So hop on twitter or whichever social media platform you like, write letters to the editor, call radio programs or hang out at the window outside the channel 7 city studios if you think that will work.

The one thing that is guaranteed is that if you don’t engage, notoriety is probably not going to come looking for you.

4. Be ready

One thing I’d never thought of, was the idea of being ready to launch your own publicity in the event that your area of expertise becomes the flavour of the day. Our pedagogue even suggested having a pre-prepared opinion or info piece written up ready to go, just in case the story breaks.

5. Don’t tell a friend, tell a stranger

If you want to be able to tell people what you do, you want to know you can do it effectively. So don’t think about how you would explain your work to a friend. They like you and they’ll make an effort to understand what on earth you’re talking about. You need to be able to explain it to the person you’ve just met at the BBQ. The extra challenge is, you need to be able to do it in such a way that they’re not looking over your shoulder for a means of scape.

So that’s what I’ve got. Obviously there’s a little more to it, but I’ll be pondering these 5 points for a while to come. For the pitch night I guess I’ll have to start by using much more direct and simple language. Few words to a sentence. Nothing too polysyllabic. So I’ve put my 6 year old on script duties. He’s doing pretty well too, although there’s a bit of tension on the number of space monsters he wants to include.

PS We were lucky enough to spend the morning with James Valentine, a media performer in multiple formats. If he ever sees this, I hope I haven’t got it too wrong. I’m sure there’s lots of options for getting some media training out there, and after the experience with James, it’s well worth it. What good is a great idea that you whisper quietly to yourself in the bathroom mirror?