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Are scientists at EGU telling stories?

by Liz Kalaugher

“It’s sitting by the campfire telling stories 15,000 years later.” Those were the words of Rolf Hut of Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, explaining how playing Dungeons and Dragons as a teenager taught him how to create narrative structures for his research that makes it appeal to the media. He was speaking as part of a PICO interactive poster session at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) general assembly.

Hut’s media exploits include wearing a suit at this year’s EGU made of a recycled academic poster, simulating an escape from Alcatraz, and donning a pair of “smart” angling waders rigged up with a thermocouple in the EGU poster halls in 2015.

The classic pyramid structure for news stories, which starts with the essential information before following up with background, is the opposite of a research paper, Hut said. Scientific papers provide the background first “to weed out readers who are not interested” and only details results later. But “your science is not news”, Hut told delegates – today it’s more likely to appear in the weekend papers or on TV. And that requires a narrative structure, more like that of a movie, with an inciting incident, action that reaches a crisis, a climax and a denouement.

That’s where Dungeons and Dragons comes in – Hut reckons he had six years’ practice telling stories in basements. To prove his point, at the end of the session Hut, together with Sam Illingworth of Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, who’s authored an IOP ebook on science communication that at the time of writing is free to download, enticed researchers at the PICO session to play a story-telling game called No Sleep Tonight, where they had to create narratives on the fly using word-prompts.

Earlier in the session, delegates heard tips and tricks from other researchers, some of whom had jumped in at the deep end of communicating their science.

Hubert Savenije of Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, in a talk about the tightrope between drawing media attention and exaggeration, described what happened after his inaugural professorship lecture at IHE Delft in 1995. During the lecture, Savenije discussed the flooding of the Maas river in The Netherlands in 1993 and criticized the government’s water management. Even though he’d sent out a press release, Savenije’s comments did not attract media attention at the time.

But when more flooding took place, the release caught the eye of a reporter. An interview with Savenije appeared on the front page of a Dutch newspaper and the following week was “as if all hell broke loose”. The scientist came under pressure from the Dutch ministry to rectify his comments. “I had overdone it,” he said. But media attention can have advantages too, he explained, despite causing jealousy amongst colleagues. Getting your name known can give you the opportunity to write longer follow-up articles that detail the full picture. Savenije’s tips for others? Ask to see the article before publication to avoid misinterpretation, don’t overdo it, and be aware of topical events that may give your work additional exposure.

A topical event – the German drought in the summer of 2015 – brought exposure to Kerstin Stahl of the University of Freiburg, Germany. Stahl was approached by the media, she said, as she was listed on her institution’s experts service and had had two new projects on drought risk funded that year. Stahl found that the media questions were often specific, referring to times, places and dates. Her research, in contrast, tended to produce generalised messages and weigh up different factors.

From drought to flood: Louise Slater a flood risk researcher from Loughborough University, UK, recommended ensuring that you’re easily findable when journalists google key words, by maintaining a personal website and using Twitter. Slater also suggested asking for the journalists’ angle and their questions in advance, being able to convey your main message in 15 seconds, and preparing three key points and having a personal example for each point. Slater, for instance, talks about how the weeds in her local river are boosting the probability that it will flood.

When Jan Seibert of the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and Uppsala University in Sweden found that his students had hit the news for accidentally colouring a river too green, he was able to turn the coverage into an explanation of the research. Siebert is now looking to boost participation in his CrowdWater citizen science project and is building its exposure in social media as well as creating a MOOC on water in Switzerland. His team found that a personal approach – asking for help with their PhDs – worked better than asking people to help save the planet.

Tom Gleeson of the University of Victoria, Canada, who blogs for the EGU and AGU, recommended scientists have their own “research brand” and an Excel spreadsheet listing their communication goals and priorities. Gleeson aims to use real, natural language, without acronyms, and practices science communication on people he sits next to on the ferry near where he lives. He thinks scientists should be humble, honest and engaging, and suggests that they have one to three key points, keep a media network on another Excel spreadsheet and use their institution’s media relations team (although experience has shown him that not every paper warrants a press release),. Despite being a “smartphone hold-out” Gleeson recommends finding a community on social media – his Twitter handle is @water_undergrnd.

Anna Solcerova of the Delft University of Technology, who hit the media on Monday after taking part in an EGU press conference, has language tips too. Solcerova picked a short and snappy title for her abstract – “How cool is uchimizu?” – rather than describing it as a measurement study of the cooling effect of direct evaporation of water on urban pavement. She believes this may have been instrumental in EGU press officer Bárbara Ferreira selecting this paper for extra attention. Solcerova also recommended talking in short, quotable sentences and taking lots of photos of your research.

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