March 2011

Go ahead, brag a little

4. Answer the following questions in your introductory e-mail to your communicator. Make your responses lengthy and oversimplified for a nontechnical audience.
Who is involved in the project? Include titles, affiliations and duties. Do not use abbreviations or jargon. Note who should be consulted about or quoted in the release or article.
What research results are you announcing? Use terms an eighth-grader would understand. Use anecdotes or examples of everyday objects to make technical matters clear for readers without scientific backgrounds.
What agencies or foundations funded the research? If other entities supported the research in unique ways, include that as well.
Where was the work conducted? Departments don’t matter to the media, but agencies, institutes, research centers and universities do. Departments do matter for internal publications.
Why would your work interest your audience? If you want to reach newspaper readers or TV viewers, make a solid case for what makes your research unique or powerful in layperson’s terms. Provide links to recent news coverage of this research area if possible. (Tip: Study how the technicalities have been explained in past news reports.)
How will your work immediately or one day affect the public? If your discovery, technique or project will affect those with a specific disease, tell your communicator about that disease. How many people does it affect in the U.S. or worldwide? What is living with it like? (Tip: Try to make the story more about people and less about the technicalities of science.)
How can you use visuals to complement a TV or print report? What places, people or things can be photographed or videotaped? What kind of images do you already have? When will you be available for a photo shoot by your institution? (Note: Media outlets usually will shoot their own photos.)

5. Keep your commitments. When you agree to go public, you are making a significant commitment of time, patience and good faith. Sometimes it can take several weeks to complete a news release or story, depending on the availability of collaborators and the time needed for the approval process. Once a news release is distributed to the media, you must be flexible, willing and available for all interview requests. Provide your communicator with your e-mail address and work, home and mobile phone numbers, because you never know when the media will call. (Remember: Never say anything to a reporter that you don’t want on the record.)

A nose for news: tips from the pros

“If your research involves humans, and you want a story, don’t even pitch me until you have identified a patient or subject who is willing to share his/her story, using his/her real name, or someone who could be helped, someday, some way.

“If your research is more abstract, be prepared with storytelling techniques: an exciting narrative about the obstacles that were overcome, a ‘eureka’ moment or a discouraging moment. Recruit other people for interviews, not just yourself: people who helped along the way (in the lab, in the field, in your childhood).

“Think of metaphors, classical allusions, biblical tales, songs, visual analogies – any way to translate your research into language a layperson can understand. The researchers who get featured have a way of explaining things visually in plain language. If I can’t see it, I can't report it.

“Bonus points: emotion and personality. Be sure to include why you are passionate about what you do. What motivated you to pursue this line of inquiry?”
– Carrie Feibel, health and science reporter for Houston Public Radio

“My main goals are to help researchers feel comfortable talking to the media and show scientists how best to convey their main points. Sometimes we can interest the New York Times or CNN or a top blog through a freelance science writer. But even a mention in a small technical newsletter can achieve big results. One time a release that I wrote for an agronomy researcher piqued the interest of the publisher of a biotech industry newsletter. The result was that a company executive contacted our scientist, and they partnered to commercialize his discovery.”
– Susan A. Steeves, media relations manager and science writer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

“When you are trying to explain your project to nonscientists, ask yourself: Does it pass the grandma test? If your grandma can’t understand what you work on and why you are working on it, then you need to change your explanation.”
– Geoff Hunt, ASBMB policy fellow

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