November 2015



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.

Sue Nelson

© 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.

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Steve Cross, science stand-up and workshop leader for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about what he looks for in a great communicator.

I’ve been in science communication full-time for 14 years, and I’ve seen hundreds of science performances at Science Showoff and Bright Club over the last few years. The ones that have really impressed me have always had some things in common.

Steve Cross

© Courtesy of Steve Cross

I’m really interested in honest science. Don’t just tell us something’s great and expect us to go along with you. Don’t just say this research might make all of our lives amazing (without telling us how likely that is!). Instead take us underneath the surface. Help us to see people and stories and places and where this science has come from. Bring it to life so that it has the kind of powerful narrative and great characters of our favourite TV shows, instead of creating something that just sounds like the exhortations to buy stuff that go between them. Don’t tell us how interesting this science is, because we’re savvy 21st-century media consumers and we won’t believe you. Instead show us things that make us decide for ourselves that what you care about really matters.

When it comes to seeing you talk about science in person or on tape I really want to connect with you. You can get along with hiding a lot of emotion when writing but as soon as I’m seeing you talk I need to feel like this is something you’ve chosen to talk about, and something you’ve decided that I personally need to hear. Don’t forget who your audience is (I for one don’t have a PhD in high-energy physics, so please don’t assume that I do!), and even more importantly don’t forget who you are. You could have talked about any one of millions of pieces of research. So why did you choose this?

Steve Cross is a public engagement consultant, stand-up comedian and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He runs Science Showoff and travels around the world making experts funny.

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.

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

In general, labs are large, light and airy places, filled with racks of consumables, glinting glassware that reflects and enhances the light, large bits of kit that you use in your day to day experiments, and – most of the time – other people. But occasionally (or quite frequently, depending on the nature of your project) your work requires you to visit a piece of rarefied, specialist equipment that lives in a room all of its own.

© OJO Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many reasons why kit may be placed in solitary confinement. There are the large, sensitive and fabulously expensive devices that necessitate careful handling. There are those that require the use of light sensitive reagents, or are themselves light sensitive, and exist in state of permanent darkness. Others are separated from the main lab for researchers’ own health and safety. (more…)

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