Last month, the Ontario Institute for Regenerative Medicine (OIRM) hosted its first Science Communications Workshop. Expert speakers, who included journalists, communicators and social media specialists, educated the mostly graduate students and early-career researchers in attendance by helping them navigate media interviews and communicate their work using social media.
In this post, I’m sharing learnings from the morning session with Ivan Semeniuk, science reporter with The Globe and Mail, who gave an impactful talk about why it is important for scientists to share their research and findings with media and how to go about doing this for maximum effect.
“Collectively, there is an extremely important benefit [of sharing your work with media],” Semeniuk explained. “Historically speaking, societies that have a robust free press are most supportive of scientific inquiry, and funding and support for research. These are allied activities. There is a benefit for our society of having an open questioning of things, both scientific and social.”
Based on this understanding, Semeniuk shared three tips to help scientists prepare for engaging with journalists from all types of media outlets, including print, television, radio or online channels. These tips also apply when sharing your research through social media.
Tips for Honing Your Message
Step 1 – Cut the Jargon
Jargon consists of words or terms used by members of a specific profession or group, but may be difficult to understand for people outside of the group. By removing jargon from your messages, they are intelligible to everyone.
Semeniuk described jargon as being like a giant cliff that is impossible to scale for some members of the audience. If a message contains just one piece of jargon it can still make the story completely inaccessible for some people.
What if you can’t avoid using a word or term that is considered jargon? Remember to explain or define it when it is first introduced.
Step 2 – Get to the Point
Start your message with the most important facts or research findings so that the story is self-evident. Ask yourself the following questions to identify what to highlight first:
- What’s the news?
- Who did what?
Media want to hear the key points of your work first to quickly assess its relevance. Less important, non-urgent facts can be shared later in the piece.
Semeniuk encouraged participants to think of this way of sharing messages as if they were passing by someone on a subway platform, and could only quickly share the most critical information about their work. In this scenario, one would likely provide the “juicy” part first and then expand facts on a need-to-know basis. Some people refer to this as an “elevator pitch.”
Step 3 – Make it Resonate with the Audience
To increase the likelihood that your research will resonate with audiences, Semeniuk shared a list of criteria that journalists and editors look for when deciding which stories to include. Those that make the news will not necessarily have all the criteria on this list, but they will have at least one.
- Peg – When assessing your pitch, media ask themselves, “What’s the peg?” A peg is a time or event that the science is linked to, or “hung upon.” This aligns with the concept that journalism is about “what’s happening now.”
- Interesting – Why is your research interesting? Some science is interesting to audiences because it relates to health or policy. Other types of science appeal to the audience’s sense of curiosity.
- New – Is the research new? Ideally, no other media outlets will have published the story before you approach a journalist with yours.
- Tension – Some stories are fraught with controversy, but other stories have hidden tensions or turning points. Media want to know what is being overturned or changed.
- Significance – Make sure your messages reflect why the audience would consider the research important and relevant.
Semeniuk uses the acronym “PINTS” to remember these five criteria, which is a nod to the after-hours beverages in pubs that he had with his colleagues while working in London, England, early in his career.
After learning these three tips, workshop participants applied their knowledge by conducting mock video media interviews. They got hands-on experience talking about their research and then received valuable feedback from the expert speakers to hone their delivery.
Interested in learning more about science communications? Learning modules from the workshop are being created and will be posted on OIRM’s YouTube Channel soon.
Watch for my related upcoming Right Turn on the elements of a great story!