From the judges’ seat: Three lessons for scientists


The relationship between scientists and journalists is often a difficult and unsatisfying one. This is not constructive to either party: it’s a crucial collaboration needed to facilitate public understanding on important issues. If either side were removed from the equation, so to speak, the other would suffer.  

This distrust between the media and scientists led to the creation of a “Dragon’s Den” type session at the recent Grand Challenges Africa conference in Nairobi, Kenya. A panel of four journalists – two from Kenya and two from South Africa – assessed the way in which four scientists communicated their innovations in 20 minutes to the media. I was fortunate to be on that panel. 

Deconstructing science: What journalists want

Are you a scientist who would like your research to travel from the lab to the rest of the world? Here are three tips:  

  1. Drop the scientific jargon: It can kill a good story  
    Words like “molecules”, “polarity” and the pros and cons of “different suspension methods” make journalists fall asleep. One of the scientists explained his innovation – a way to make antibiotics last longer in the African heat – with these words. Most of this flew over our heads. For a reporter without a scientific background, and that’s most of us, these terms can cause enough confusion to mute follow-up questions. Difficult terms can also lead to journalists reporting on science incorrectly. One fellow judge commented: “I’m still unsure of how this product would benefit the actual community – or even what it looks like.” Rather explain complicated concepts through common metaphors.  
  2. Use anecdotes: They can make your innovation come alive  
    A Kenyan social entrepreneur walked onto the stage with a visibly different attitude to his competitors: he brought his innovation – a metal stove that purifies water while you cook – along with him. He used the word ‘I’, framing his story from a first person perspective, and told his story through a number of anecdotes from the community his contraption was intended to serve. “I spoke to a young girl who told me that when she started drinking boiled water from the stove she stopped missing school because of constant diarrhoea. She can now concentrate on her school work.” This anecdotal information was a powerful tool: it provided us with the “equipment” to tell our stories: a device to describe supported by strong quotes, personal stories. 
  3. Focus on the basics first: Describe the easy stuff before the science
    Journalists use words to get the attention of their audience. We need to be able to tell our consumers what an innovation looks like, how it works and how they could potentially use it. One scientist focused most of his presentation – about a natural mosquito repellent – on how it performed in lab tests and how these experiments were carried out. He never got down to describing the actual innovation he pitched. We left wondering: What was this repellent made from? How exactly does it last for double the time of current natural repellent products? And how will he bring this product to market?  We would have had a much bigger capacity to absorb the science and report on his innovation if he had answered our basic questions first.

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