Sue Nelson, science journalist and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition gives her tips for communicating science effectively.
Science communication combines a number of skills. In print it’s a potent mix of good writing with a key understanding of the science involved and the ability to explain a story or concept in language that makes the reader wish they’d thought of that phrase.
© Courtesy of Sue Nelson
An article must be written for the appropriate audience and so even when not aimed at scientists, the science must always be correct. Simplifying something often involves understanding the concepts to a much higher level in order to get it right.
A good headline and introduction is your sales pitch. Make them memorable and interesting. This is not the place to give the names of whoever funded any research. Ensure that whoever reads that opening paragraph will want to keep on reading to the end of the piece. So structure it well. Know where you are starting and ending before you begin writing.
The choice of quotes is essential. Quotes provided on press releases are often written by committee and most journalists – including myself – can tell. The words don’t always read right because it’s unlikely anyone would talk that way in real life. The solution? Don’t make quotes up. Interview a scientist, researcher or as many as you think are needed for your story and encourage them to expand upon their work. Get the facts and the colour. How scientists feel about research, or the lengths they’ve gone to get some data, keeps people reading and maintains a reader’s interest. If there’s a human interest aspect, get that too.
When making a film for the competition, have fun with it. We want to see who you are and what you’ve got to say, not who think you ought to be presenting like. There’s only one Brian Cox or Alice Roberts so be yourself. When addressing the camera directly, imagine you are talking to someone you know and like (we will hear it in your voice and see it in your face). This will help with a natural delivery.
We walk and talk all the time but doing so on camera is surprisingly difficult and can look stilted and unnatural. If you find it difficult, don’t do it. But if you want to include any walking and talking, or a demonstration, rehearse it until it’s second nature. And choreograph your movements. Check the angles on camera – sometimes you need to hold your hand differently if fingers are covering something you want us to see. It might not feel natural but it will look better on screen.
From a technical point of view, do the same as what you’d do with a camera on a smartphone. Don’t film yourself in front of a window or we will only see your silhouette. Make sure you are well lit and we can hear you clearly. Get the basics right and then concentrate on what you’d like to say. There’s no need to memorise everything. Just remember key points and keep it natural and free flowing.
I can’t wait to read your entries and see your videos. Good luck!
Sue Nelson is an award-winning science journalist and broadcaster and a director of Boffin Media. She makes short films for the European Space Agency, produces and presents podcasts and radio programmes, and is former BBC science and environment correspondent. Sue has also written on science for most of the UK’s national newspapers.
If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2015/16 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of public attitudes to chemistry offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.