Over the years, one of the oddest things I repeatedly see with science communication is that so often world experts deliver awful interviews and then blame the media. Sorry, the real culprit is poor preparation. I don't care how much a researcher knows, few have the skill to wing an interview.
Coupled with this are the unforgivable media releases about scientific research that are so convoluted and poorly structured they become unreadable. I see them way too often.
If you want to keep the attention of a professional reporter, media releases should be seriously limited in size - to one A4 page with a font size of no less than 10 and no more than 12 point. Too much longer than that and it will be binned, no questions asked.
Often, the reason for awful interviews and poor media releases are identical. It's all about researchers and science communicators trying to jam too much in to what will always be a strict and tight format. The rule of threes will fix that.
Use this rule and you will find that media releases will be much easier to write, interviews are more likely to be successful and when researchers come calling with a story idea they will bring it in an easy to understand way and probably with a built-in hook.
The rule of threes
"What are the three most important points, in order of priority, about this paper/opinion piece/interview that you want to get across?"
Once you have outlined these points it is simply a matter of refining what they are with the researcher into three short, simple sentences.
For the first 8 to 12 months every time I did a media release or organised an interview, this was one the first questions I asked. Quite often the third point tended to be the hardest to discern but usually after a 5 to 10 minute conversation we had three key points and a clear idea of what it was that the researcher wanted to say. Most importantly, all three points were rewritten in simple, easy-to-understand language that could be delivered as a soundbite.
By the second year, after repeating the rule of threes ad nauseam, my researchers began walking into my office not just with an idea but with the three key points already formulated. That's when you know you have won.
The power of three
As a science communicator it helps distill your message and makes all the work you do around communicating science, no matter how complex, considerably easier.
As a researcher it substantially enhances your chances of getting across the idea that you think is most important about your work. It absolutely reduces the chances that you will look back on an interview and feel that your work has been misrepresented or that you forgot to say something that was important. Also, and I will discuss this in a later post, it allows the researcher to control an interview.
Best of all, this approach gives a clear measurable indicator of the success of an interview.
I tell my researchers, if you get just one point across it has been a successful interview. If that point is your key point then you have done very well. If my researchers get two points across that is an outstanding result. If by chance all three points make it into a report start popping the champagne corks.
I have found it easy to explain to my researchers the reasons for taking this approach. It's all about the nature of media.
If your researcher does a pre-recorded interview for a package that is going to be on radio or television program, format restrictions mean it is very likely that only one or two short quotes will be used in say a two to three minute segment.
News packages are even tighter than current affairs shows. They generally last a total of 30 seconds to 1 minute, so to get two 8-second quotes is an impressive hit rate. Even one is a win.
Despite newspaper and online articles seeming to be longer and more in-depth, the fact that journalists go to multiple sources and include background information means, again, two quotes makes for a pretty impressive hit rate on what is usually a 300 word story.
The only time you have more time to deliver your message is for live-to-air interviews or in opinion pieces. On those occasions it's a golden chance to deliver all three points. If you use the rule of threes, the researcher enters those live interviews with a clear idea of what they want to say and it gives them amazing focus as they move through the interview. Knowing the three key points makes planning the structure of a good opinion piece considerably easier.
For me, the proof has been in the pudding. Since I started at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science I cannot remember the last time one of my researchers didn't come away without delivering their key point in an interview.
Of course, this simple rule is a shorthand route to the foundation of good communication - preparation. The rule of three just helps make that preparation simpler and it's a great way to get your spokespeople, no matter who they are, on message and saying exactly what they mean to say.
Once you they have achieved that a few times, watch their confidence grow.