Daryl Ilbury

Posts Tagged ‘similes’

King Kong and the eagles on stilts

In Eish!, Science on January 9, 2015 at 6:38 am

flat,550x550,075,fThere’s a saying that spins in my head every time I work with scientists: ‘You can lead a horse to water, but if you can get it to float on its back, then you’ve really got something’. In a way it sums up the challenge – and rewards – of getting scientists to tell their stories, and that’s a lot to do with the veracity of the scientific method.

I have spent almost 30 years in the media – as a breakfast-show broadcaster, writer, columnist, editor and science journalist – and now I use my expertise to help scientists communicate more effectively with the media. It’s not easy, but when it works out and we’re able to unlock the insights from their work, the results can be magical, as you will soon see.

But first, some background: That broad field of research known as ‘science’ is the collective input of hundreds of thousands of scientists each focusing on an incredibly specific area of research. For example, a biologist won’t just study a single virus; they will study a single component of the virus’s DNA.

The veracity of the scientific method demands that when they each publish their research it is critically examined and picked apart – sometimes shredded – by other scientists looking for errors. So, scientists have to be meticulous in their research. This is helpful – and not – when they sit down with a journalist. And here’s why:

  1. Because the scientist is a specialist, they will use specialised language, most of which will be completely foreign to a journalist. The journalist will therefore need to ‘translate’ the language into something the media consumer can understand.
  2. The scientist is focused on the specifics to do with their area of research; the journalist wants to know what the big picture is – why the research is important to the general media consumer.
  3. The scientist is ‘bound’ by the exacting, mathematical, demands of scientific integrity; the journalist has at their disposal the unfettered creativity of language.
  4. The scientist is interested in specific outcomes; the journalist is looking for a narrative.
  5. Before the story ‘goes live’ it’ll be clawed at by a sub-editor with no knowledge of the content, much to the frustration of the scientist and journalist.

The result evokes the most common complaint I get from scientists: ‘journalists always get what I say wrong’.

The solution as I explain to scientists is for them to take ownership of ‘translation’. They can do this by giving the media what the media wants, not giving the media what they want and relying on the media to tell it accurately. I drum into them a journalism mantra: Content is king, context is King Kong; and one of the best ways to provide context for the media consumer is to use imagery or analogies – this provides the journalist with a creative way to tell their story, helps the media consumer visualise the research focus, and often gives the sub-editor a catchy headline. So, if the scientists can provide accurate analogies, it reduces the risk of mistranslation.

And so it was when I worked with post-docs (scientists who recently completed their PhD) of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Cape Town. After I had guided them through the various ways of using imagery I asked them to select one key component of their research and explain it using a simile – they had to use the word ‘like’. They all looked at me blankly – I was taking them right out of their comfort zone – so I gave them some examples, and 20 minutes.

One of the post-docs was doing research on how the habitat of the secretary bird – a voracious raptor with a sweet tooth for snakes – can be used as an indicator of environmental degradation. When it was her turn to present her simile, she took a deep breath and said: “Like an eagle on stilts the secretary bird patrols the African grassland, jealously guarding its territory”. There was a brief pause as her colleagues looked at her with shocked admiration before exploding into cheers and applause. A grin burst onto her face as she saw the grin on mine. She had hit the nail on the head.

As I said: ‘magical’.