by Amy Richardson, CFICE Communications RA
You’re an academic who’s uncovered groundbreaking research after years of testing. You know the topic inside and out; you’re the expert. A news agency calls you to talk about your findings and you couldn’t be more excited. While conducting the pre-interview, they ask you to simplify the complex terms and cut the jargon. But you’re an expert, you thought it was ALREADY simple. What now?
Beth Gorham, the manager of Public Affairs at Carleton University, helps researchers make their findings relevant to the media.
“Our main goal when we deal with researchers and academics is to help them get their message across in a really accessible way,” Gorham says.
Gorham, the Department of University Communications and the Carleton University Research Office work together to encourage the Carleton community to spread the word about what’s happening at Carleton and the great things they are researching. They emphasize using storytelling techniques that will peak your audience’s interest.
“One of the main ways we try and support (researchers and academics) is through understanding their audience and how they have to take very complex subjects and present them in accessible, meaningful ways,” she says.
“We get very specific and tell them: don’t use big numbers, round stuff off and create an image in people’s minds. Don’t say 6000 metres, instead say the length of two football fields. These are all things that are part of natural storytelling and creating a narrative that’s simple yet compelling.”
Another trick, Gorham says, is to imagine that they’re speaking to someone in particular that they know, maybe their mother, spouse or cousin – someone who isn’t an expert on the topic.
“It’s not dumbing it down,” she says. “All it’s doing is taking it to a level that respects your audience so people aren’t flipping the channel or turning the page; they’re listening to you. And the reason they’re listening to you is because you’ve got something to tell them that they find compelling and they want to know.“
“We really emphasize that they’re experts. The rest of the world is not. [The audience wants] to know the practical results of their research – what is the bottom line here? How is it benefitting the world and in what way?” she says.
Gorham and Maria McClintock, editor of Internal Communications, offer media training and sessions on an array of topics, such as writing opinion pieces.
Gorham says they show researchers video clip examples of the right and wrong ways to talk to the media. They also record the researcher on camera so they can see how they look before an on air interview.
“We all have bad habits. If you can’t see it, you can’t internalize it. Even if you cringe when you watch yourself on TV, you have to watch yourself. You just don’t know what those bad habits are if you don’t see them.”
They also work with researchers on how to prepare for pre-interviews.
“We always tell them that you might as well consider the pre-interview, the interview. If (the news outlets) don’t find you’re giving them good quotes or context in the pre-interview, you’ll never make it to the real thing. You have to treat it just as seriously. All the advice we give them about the real interview applies to the pre-interview.”