Know What You Want, Part One
If you are engaging in science communication (or any communication, really) you should know what you want before you start writing (or filming or recording). This is true for reporters, but it is especially true for public information officers (PIOs) – because the goals for PIOs can be a lot more diverse.
Reporters generally have a limited number of goals in mind for what they are writing. Broadly speaking, they want to convey information in an accurate way that keeps the audience reading (or watching or listening). Ideally, their stories will get enough readers to make money for their employers, so that they can continue being reporters.
Being a PIO can be a lot less straightforward. That’s because what a PIO wants is determined by what his “client” wants. For a science PIO (like me) there are usually two clients: the researcher whose work you are promoting, and the institution that you work for (in my case, a university).
I need to define the goals of the researcher and the university before I even begin writing. That’s because the goals tell me who the target audience should be, and that shapes both the way I write and – more importantly – what I do with the finished product.
Research institutions and researchers usually have different, but overlapping, goals when it comes to science communication. I'll focus on universities (rather than, say, federal labs), since I work at a university. Universities want to raise their profile in a positive way with a wide variety of external audiences: potential students, potential faculty, alumni, federal funding agencies, state legislators (if they’re public universities), business partners and businesses they want to partner with in the future. Note that most of these audiences are outside the sphere of the science community.
Researchers want citations for their papers, to attract promising grad students, to identify funding opportunities, curry favor with federal funding agencies and create opportunities for formal or informal collaboration with other researchers. Universities also share these goals, because anything that reflects well on a university’s faculty also reflects well on the university itself. But please note that the audience you need to reach to accomplish any of these goals is the science community.
Because I am a university PIO, I try to accomplish the goals of both my university and the researchers I work with. That means simultaneously writing for an audience of teenagers (i.e. potential students) and an audience of PhDs (i.e. potential collaborators). How do I do that? In short: I try to write clearly, don’t talk down to my audience(s), and highlight whatever is interesting or important about the research.
Specifically, I write for an imaginary person who I think of as The Intelligent Non-Expert. The Intelligent Non-Expert is familiar with basic scientific concepts, but not with the intricacies of whatever subject I happen to be writing about. This means I try to keep jargon to a minimum, and explain any jargon that I do use. Jargon is not inherently bad – it allows experts to convey large amounts of information in concise terms – but it can scare off readers, particularly if you use it early in a story.
What I do want to include early in the story is an explanation about why the research matters. If the work moves us closer to more efficient lasers, targeted drug delivery or understanding the genetic basis of a disease, you should say so. Don’t oversell the research, but place it in a context that people can understand.
If it is impossible to (honestly) explain the work’s relevance to a practical application, then at least put the findings into context with previous work. For example, if the research resolves a scientific question that was first asked 20 years ago, say that. And, since science is an iterative process, it may be worth discussing what new questions the research raises. Questions can be as interesting as answers, if they’re really good questions.
If you’ve written clearly, and explained the research’s relevance, then it will likely be interesting and understandable to at least some (most?) of the audiences you want to reach. Experts in the field may be annoyed that you didn’t include all the nitty-gritty details, but you can point them to the paper – that’s the audience the journal article was written for in the first place. (Note: always remember to include a link to the paper in your story.)
This post is getting too long, so I’m splitting it up. In “Part Two,” I’ll talk about what you do with a story once you’ve written it – and why having clear goals is important there as well.