The toe in the door: getting started as a science communicator

“Science Communicator” – it’s a great title, but it can be a perplexing one to explain to someone outside the field. Science communicators are so diverse in what they do that attempting to show the professional links that bind book authors and TV presenters to museum curators and researchers can be a challenge. It is even harder when someone asks you “How do I get into science communication?”

The obvious link between us all is that we are interested both in science and in getting science over to others, but that has little practical value when someone wants to know how they can join us as a practitioner. If they are clear that they want to be a teacher, journalist, blogger, volunteer zoo guide or any of the other many activities that nestle under our label the way is clear, but for those simply interested in the vague attraction of science communication, or who have started down one path (like research), feel that it is not for them and they want to do something else, it can be hard to know what advice to offer.

Science communication can also be a pretty idiosyncratic pursuit. Before the Australian Science Communicators formed, many of us had carved our own niche, but that doesn’t mean that it remains a niche now waiting to be filled by another. You only have to look at the speed with which mainstream media are changing to realise that getting into science media now is very different from doing it twenty or thirty years ago, and so older ASC members, often with the greatest experience of science communication, may also provide the least useful examples for others to emulate.

That said, we do get many enquiries from those who, in a general sense, “want to get into science communication.” I was asked to present a session on this at the recent conference but, living in a bushfire-prone region, I like to stay home in February, so had to miss what seems to have been an excellent few days. I haven’t ducked the request, however. I thought about what I would have presented and here, for better or worse, are 17 points that might help someone who is interested enough in science communication to want poke their toe into the water.  They are in no particular order and cover writing, journalism and media presentation. That simply reflects some of my own experience, and I’d be delighted for others with different (or similar) backgrounds to add their points to the list.

Writing and journalism

  1. Try to write/prepare material that lets you build a portfolio that someone will take seriously. Newsletters can provide an outlet and, since they don’t pay, they are often desperate for copy, but choose carefully. Don’t go for a photocopied one with an audience of 10 and so short of material that you can rabbit on at will. Go for something that is edited, well read, professionally printed and where the editor can give you a brief (word count/photo requirement /style etc), although some people say that they don’t care what the outlet is as long as they see evidence of someone who knows how to write a story. Writing material for edited newsletters that have a clear editorial style, professional look and a large audience is good practice in learning how to write an interesting piece, so it is not to be disregarded. Start building a portfolio of your work, even if you are not paid for it.
  2. A lot of material in newsletters, corporate circulars etc shrieks “We want you to know this.” Practise, instead, writing something that makes the reader or listeners think “I want to read/hear/watch this.”
  3. Most (all?) universities have newspapers in which they write thinly disguised “We are wonderful” stories about their staff and research. These go to the community but also to media. Some stories are well written and others no more than puff pieces. See if you can evaluate those of real strength versus those that are uni propaganda. Ask the Media Unit if they will accept/look at material from you. Again, most won’t pay (although I know of one uni which worked with beginners, helped them develop their style and then paid for what was used). MAKE SURE you understand their brief (length, style etc) and match it with what you write. You may get no money, but should get your name in a byline on a printed article that you can add to your portfolio.
  4. Always try to find some kind of story to deliver, rather than just facts/figures. Journalists are often told that their audiences are thinking (if subconsciously) “How does this affect me or the people that I love?” Think of how you can make your story answer that.
  5. Avoid hyperbole, especially the tired clichés of science writing, particularly “breakthrough,” “cutting-edge,” “leading-edge” “world-beating.” Some editors I know are so sick of these that they bin on sight any media releases containing them. Think, instead, of how you can convey why the work is interesting/important rather than resorting to overused and tired clichés that suggest you may not know much about the subject.
  6. Media reports are often called stories, although they are anything but. Remember the power of a true story. Attune your ear to the great broadcasters (e.g. David Attenborough and the late Alistair Cook) and you will find how they can make a report into a story that captures and sustains interest.
  7. Think about and learn how to take an interesting photo to supplement your story. Some outlets will simply not use a story without a photo. Learn the rudiments of composition (for video as well). Practise being able quickly to make the focal interest of your pic one third in and one third up or down in the frame. An interesting picture is NOT people standing to attention in a group smiling at the camera or clustered around a computer. Think of a photo that makes people want to say “What is that about?” and read your story. Some good examples can often be found in finance pages where, faced with subject matter that bores most readers, photographers are often inventive (face seen through glass of wine, reflected in hubcap, shot down length of bore tube etc).
  8. Find science or similar journals that interest you and in which are articles that you believe you could match. Look at (or ask for) their editorial policy that should tell you if they take unsolicited material and in what form. Ask the editor if you may submit something for scrutiny. I work/have worked for a number of science journals in Australia whose editors are (cautiously) ready to mentor beginners if they don’t get overwhelmed with submissions. Some are surprising – have a look at Readers’ Digest policy – and they may pay if you get in.
  9. Remember that many staff in newsrooms go on leave around Christmas and January. Skeleton staff may struggle to find enough material at that time. This also applies to regional media outlets. That may be a good time to make your pitch to see if they will take stuff. Keep what you submit short and punchy and relevant to their readers. If they like it they may, in time, let you get longer, but at least you’ll have something in print for your portfolio. Monday is also often a slow day in the media as the material from the week before is old.
  10. Explore what outlets there may be online. Many people have developed their reputations as good and interesting bloggers. It is another way of learning the discipline of writing competitively (by which I mean making people want to read you when there is so much on offer).
  11. Try your Community Radio and TV stations. They won’t pay, but may be able to take some stuff that you do and may also give you some valuable training in editing, microphone craft, studio practice etc.
  12. Some radio outlets, community and even commercial, may be interested in a package of short pieces. I was recently asked to do one on our state’s ten top scientists. They were only about 2 minutes long, but there were ten of them – a short series for the CV. Think of a similar series you might offer and make it relevant to the outlet (10 top female scientists of Australia? Who should have won a Nobel Prize and Why? 10 science predictions that didn’t come true, kitchen science etc). Sadly, science journalists are being dropped and not replaced as mainstream media struggle to balance the books. Few regular journalists are strong on science, and it can be a good field for a freelancer. My pathway into TV newsrooms for 16 years was not through a journalism degree but a science background and experience in TV presenting.
  13. Learn how to edit a radio piece. You can download a very good digital editing package free from the Internet. It is called AUDACITY (Google it), and sits on your computer. You can record on various (good quality) devices, feed the track(s) into the computer, and edit in Audacity, outputting it as MP3 tracks, downloaded to a recorder, CD or similar. I have used Audacity for quite a bit of nationally broadcast material. It is pretty easy to use and an extremely valuable (and free) way to learn digital sound editing (1 or multi tracks). There is also a manual on line and a Q&A section. This is a good skill to have with the increasing number of online outlets. (Audacity is also good if you are a musician and want to do some mixing).
  14. Similarly, learn to shoot video that looks professional. Use a tripod for steady shots, collect wide and closeup shots (from different angles) and practise editing them together on one of the many editing packages (many free – see what came with your version of Windows). It is a good idea to start with a short, simple, defined project (there is that “brief” again) like a holiday, family gathering, wedding etc. Watch to see how professional media material (eg a news story) is put together. You will learn heaps and, again, have some skills that you can offer when people want science talks or events videorecorded.
  15. See what may be around in terms of Prizes and Awards. There are such things for amateurs in writing, photography and even video. Again, they usually define the brief, and learning to work to a brief is essential. Working up material for the entry will give you training, may give you a prize or may produce something that, even if it doesn’t win, can be used somewhere else.
  16. Many societies need a publicity officer. This might only be for special occasions (awards; events) or they might have much to communicate. Consider volunteering for that role, and learn how to produce a professional looking media release. Many amateur releases are simply long narrative paragraphs; fatal! Media releases have their own “Lego” construction for very good reason – it is easy for journalists to select and join different parts as needed and at great speed. Media releases that don’t look like that often ring alarm bells with journalists. Learn how to put a good media release together with interesting quotations (grabs) from people involved (there are online sites that offer examples) and then where to send it. It will give you useful insights into how journalists try to deal with the barrage of material they get each day. Perhaps your society will pay for you to do media training. If so, grab it, but get it from someone who has actual experience in a newsroom or on the media; there are many “experts” offering training who have done neither, and they make take you down very counterproductive paths.
  17. ASC is a society. That means that there are members with great experience in many different aspects of science communication who are approachable. They are all busy, but most will be happy to help with constructive advice; even reading some of your work if it is not too lengthy. Find someone who has experience in the area of science communication in which you are interested and try them.  Good luck.

Dr Rob Morrison is a freelance science writer and broadcaster, and National Vice President of ASC

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