The pen is mightier than the pipette: Science communicators’ advice on sharing your research with the public

Graduate student Lauren Hamm sits down with three experts to talk about the dos and don’ts of sharing your research with the media.

Modern scientists have too much to do. From teaching the next generation of researchers to networking with collaborators to searching for elusive funding, it’s hard to make time for actual research, much less talking about it. Perhaps this is one of many reasons that a widening divide has split our nation with lay people on one side and scientists on another. It’s easy to drown in looming deadlines and forget that science that stays in the lab, can die in the lab.

However, keeping your research alive and disseminating it to your community is no easy task. Let this be your guide to proactively navigating the science communication labyrinth as an early career researcher! With the advice from three professional communicators, I have compiled a reference guide to a few of the options available to you as a scholar for three avenues of science communication: informational journalism through external organizations, promotion through your institution’s press office, and personal campaigns through social media.

Which option is best for me?

Just like a pluripotent stem cell, your research communication can take on many forms as it develops. Thanks to the multifaceted nature of this often-fluid process, there is no one right way to convey the importance of your research. Instead, focus on answering which method—or combination of methods—appeals most to you and work from there.

The traditional path generally follows a simple trajectory: after you publish an article, a journalist who covers a specific beat takes interest in your work and reaches out to feature it in a news article. This option exposes your work to a public audience that may not be specifically looking for your research.

Three headshots on a laptop screen showing a Zoom meeting.
Lauren Hamm spoke to a UC Berkeley science writer, a faculty member, and a freelance reporter to understand different approaches scientists can take when sharing their research with the public. Image created by Lauren Hamm.

“It’s hard to find another way to reach a wide audience outside your institution other than talking to a journalist,” says Roberta Kwok, a freelance journalist who’s published science news articles for New Yorker online, Nature, New York Times online, Hakai, Audubon, and U.S. News & World Report.

A slight deviation from the mass-media approach that is sometimes overlooked is to reach out to your institution’s press officers. A press officer’s “job is to amplify what’s happening at their institution,” explains Kara Manke, a UC Berkeley science writer whose as worked in the press offices of MIT and Duke University. “I get pitches from faculty and also communicators on campus, and I work with my editor to decide which stories we’re going to do.” The goal of a press release is to draw media attention to research in a way that benefits both the institution and the researcher. This publicity can be used as a steppingstone to attract the attention of external journalists and potential collaborators.

Additionally, academics can take power into their own hands and engage in direct outreach through social media or another public platform. This option is becoming more and more popular as social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram expand, but potentially risk limiting your exposure to a smaller group of like-minded individuals. “I use Twitter to increase the interactome [with my own work],” says Noah Whiteman, an associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley. “It brings in people who might not read it otherwise and gets the information out to a broader community that can include scientists in your field or members of the public.”

In short, which option you choose depends on who you want to reach and which method you and sometimes your institution can best invest in. All three accomplish the important task of expanding the reach of your work and all three often occur hand in hand.

What can I expect from an interview?

For both indirect options of reporting in which you communicate through a journalist or press officer, you will be interviewed to attain a first-hand account of what your research discovered and why it is important. The journalist will be looking to establish the what, where, when, who, and why, weaving all five points of information together with a singular storyline. This narrative perspective helps to guide readers through the weeds of your work.

“I might start with ‘What was the big question that you wanted to answer with this study? Why did you think it was important?’” says Kwok. Afterwards, imagine you were writing a narrative yourself. First you back up to the context, explaining the past: What have people done before to try to answer this question, and why wasn’t that enough? Then you get into the meat of the article, detailing the present: What did you find, and was that what you were expecting? And finally, you finish out with future plans: What do you think needs to be done next, and are you working on that already?

Not every interview will follow this progression, but most with hit all of these points. Kwok follows this path herself. “I like to go chronologically, because that helps me understand how the logic of the science unfolded because that’s how I’m going to tell the story to the readers,” she explains, “And yes, I’m going to put the news right at the top, but then after I do that, I have to step back and sort of tell the story.”

How can I prepare for an interview?

Acing an interview is much harder than it sounds, so taking time for a few preparations is vital. All in all, you can narrow it down to three essential steps: 1) Know your audience, 2) Build off a foundation of common knowledge with said audience, and 3) Bring notes so you don’t forget anything.

“The first thing is to figure out who the journalist is and what outlet that they’re writing for,” suggests Manke. “Even if you do get a cold call from a journalist, you can always ask them for their name and the media outlet they work for and say, ‘can I call you back in half an hour?’ to prepare yourself and do a little bit of digging.”

Manke goes on to describe the content variation across different sources. “If it’s someone from the desk news at Nature or a trade journal, then they’re going to be interested in going into the science with you and the details of your experiments,” Manke notes. “If it’s the local TV station, they’re going to have a very broad outlook and will want just the nuts and bolts.” Thus, knowing who the journalist on the other end of the line is and who they work for can inform you about what to prepare and who will be reading the article.

However, regardless of the specific audience, you have to assume that there is at least one outsider from the general public with little to no previous knowledge about your research. Whether it’s an informal lab talk or a high-profile article, “there’s going to be someone in the audience who isn’t in your field and might not even be in biology,” explains Whiteman, “so if you don’t spend time stepping way back and trying to make it relatable, you will lose them.” This foundation can be anything from shopping for supplies at Home Depot to watching Monarch butterflies migrate.

Whiteman goes on to give an example of his own: “I like to begin with the Galapagos Islands. Most people know about that. They might not know exactly where they are, or what country they’re a part of, but they’ll have heard of them. And they may have heard of Darwin. And that’s definitely a way in with the work that I have done.”

There is always a way in which your research overlaps with the everyday experiences, and this shared connection acts as a root for the rest of the information. Even if an audience member gets lost along the way, they can guide themselves back to that shared experience enough to last through to the end of the information. “You might keep them along long enough where your work could impact them, and they might even come up to you afterwards and want to engage with you about it,” Whiteman offers. “Get them interested in it is my advice.”

Finally, in addition to setting the scene with a universal experience: “if you get a call from a reporter, write out your three most important points that you want to make about your research,” suggests Manke.  “What are your take-home messages? Write them down on a Post-It note so that you can’t go too much into the details.” This achieves two goals: making sure you don’t miss any crucial information and keeping your details succinct so that they can be easily quotable.

Common mistakes to avoid

Don’t get lost in jargon! It’s useful to remember that while telling your story, journalists likely have a scientific background of their own. “I think it really helps to have a background in science to understand how it works, you know, to kind of see how the sausage gets made,” says Manke, who herself has a PhD in chemistry from MIT.

This means that they can understand your work but doesn’t guarantee that their audience can. “So, if you see that your journalist is a former scientist, that doesn’t necessarily mean you can talk at a higher level,” says Kwok. Instead, shoot for a 5th grade level. “Imagine your fifth-grade nephew or niece asks you ‘What was that about?’ Well, you’d have to find a way to explain it, right?” Using this 5th grade analogy with any science communication outlet ensures that you are understandable to every member of your audience.

Don’t come off as overly professional and serious. Your work is exciting, so be excited about it! “I think part of it is just sort of not being afraid to show your enthusiasm for it, or what you find really exciting about it,” says Manke. This humanizes you as a scientist to close the gap between you and your audience and acts as an opportunity to energize your readers around your work. Sometimes this can be achieved through humor, but largely this relies on sharing your personal voice.

Don’t answer questions you feel uncomfortable tackling. Manke summarizes this nicely: “People at your university, people like me, we always will show the scientists the draft of the work before it gets published, but journalists will generally not do that. Occasionally, they might let you see just your quotes, but they’ll almost never let you see like a full draft. So be mindful of what you do say.” You always have the right to radio silence on topics that are outside your field of work, political, controversial, or just downright personal. At the end of the day, you don’t necessarily get control over what a reporter includes in their article, but you do get control over what you are willing to divulge. Remember the wise words of Manke: “If you’re just not comfortable with their line of questioning, you can always shut it down.”

Can I be proactive?

Yes! And you should be! Reach out to your press officers with plenty of advance notice when you know about a forthcoming paper. Manke describes your options like a deep network: “There’s people like me who work in universities, and there’s actually lots of different levels at the university. [For Berkeley] there’s QB3 news and then there’s the Rausser College of Natural Resources and the College of Engineering and School of Public Health. If you’re publishing in a journal, there’s also press officers at the journal who may also promote your work.” Finally, Manke notes that press officers at different societies such as the American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, and more may be able to help cross promote your work.

Additionally, you can maintain relationships with journalists that you have worked with before. “Reporters love it when people come to them with story ideas as well,” says Kwok, “Now, that doesn’t mean they’re going to cover every study that you do, and you don’t want to spam people, but if you’ve got like a pretty interesting study coming out and you’ve been interviewed by a journalist before, then reach out!”

When it comes to direct communication, you can also be proactive. Is there a gap in science Twitter that you could fill? Then go for it! Start retweeting and tweeting about the research and stories that interest you, even if you don’t have a paper out that you’re actively promoting right now.

How can I learn more?

Sometimes the best way to learn is by doing. If you are an early career scientist, start looking for opportunities to build up your science communications skillset. “Outreach is a skill that can be developed by speaking and doing and writing, trying and making sure that you take every opportunity as a trainee,” says Whiteman. “To put your work in front of people is intimidating. I still get nervous before every single talk or interview. I would encourage junior scientists to reach out to their mentors for opportunities to speak to journalists.”

For Berkeley students, faculty, and researchers there is also a course offered through bCourses on communicating with the media titled “Media Training for Academics.” This free, self-paced online course can offer you an insulated, less-stressful environment to get the ball rolling and practice for future interviews. Just remember, the sooner you start interacting with real journalists, the better.

Whiteman encourages early career researchers to practice sharing their research now. “If you look at the people who get accolades in science now, they are often very good communicators, both to other scientists and to lay people,” asserts Whiteman. “And there’s a reason for that. I think we are in this situation now where there’s massive distrust in science, more than there has been in the past. The only way to correct that is to get ourselves out there in a way that engages directly with people.” Modern scientists are constantly being pulled in a thousand different directions. Make sure that you take time to do the final and most important step: share your research!