January 9, 2018
From left: David Jiang, Tony Liu, Kellen Bean, Professor Tom Near, David Grimm, Chunyang Ding, and Sonia Wang
One of the most stressful and important times in a scientist’s career isn’t always awaiting the results of a new experiment—it’s a call from a journalist. Should you agree to the interview? What should you say? And how can you possibly distill months—or years—of research into a few minutes on the phone?
And for journalists just starting out as science writers, the challenges are equally great. How do you write about a scientist’s work so that average readers can understand it, while still being accurate?
In September, I was honored to give a Poynter talk at Yale University on these very topics. The presentation was culled from my years of experience as a journalist at Science Magazine and my role as a professor of science communication at Johns Hopkins University. But it also drew from my own time as a scientist, earning a PhD at the very university I was speaking at. I hope the following tips will be useful for scientists and science writers—not just for news stories, but for grants, cover letters, and even conversations at parties.
First, take (or make) that phone call
In a world where scientific facts are disputed, mangled, and politicized, it’s important that scientists and journalists talk to each other. Scientists, you owe it to the public to explain the importance of your research, especially if it’s supported by tax dollars. And journalists, you owe it to your readers to communicate this research clearly and accurately. So how do you do this?
Speak simply and clearly
This may seem like obvious advice, but even when given it, scientists tend to fall back on the way they’re used to talking. They say “olfaction” instead of “smell”. They write that an object “experienced difficulty maintaining a vertical orientation” instead of “it fell down”. And they generally use words and phrases that sound like they came from a textbook—not a human being. Journalists fall into these traps too, especially if they trained as a scientist.
The solution? Envision a friend or relative with an interest in science, but no scientific background. I like to think of my grandmother. She’s interested in new discoveries, but it’s been decades since she learned any science in school. How would I explain a complex scientific concept to her without losing her in jargon and academic speak? If I can communicate clearly and effectively to her, I can communicate with anyone.
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