There are ways to effectively convey a story on technological achievements to a lay audience. Brent Balinski spoke to University of Sydney science media advisor Marcus Strom about the importance of empathy in this.
If you’re trying to communicate anything scientific or technical, a good place to start is a reminder about assumed knowledge.
For Marcus Strom, a long-time science reporter and former science editor at The Sydney Morning Herald, that starting point was often non-science co-workers.
There might be a yarn in an obscure paper or topic, but if you can’t get it across to a layperson, then you haven’t located it.
“[When] they’d say, ‘that’s boring, why are you telling me about that?’ it would help you hone your own message and also help you clarify ‘actually, maybe this isn’t newsworthy. Maybe I shouldn’t be pursuing this line,’” recalls Strom of his newsroom days.
“If you’ve got confidants you can rely on, I find bouncing those ideas off people really helps me a lot.”
Like many journalists, Strom has moved on to public relations, and has been a media adviser at the University of Sydney’s science faculty since 2017.
Whether your role is journalism or another communications profession, before you develop any sort of message, you need to try and understand what the audience is interested in. This is especially so if your subject is something technical.
“You’ve got to dig deep into empathy and realise that it’s not about you; it’s not about your company, if you’re trying to make it relevant to other people,” is Strom’s advice.
“You’ve got to think, ‘well, why is anyone else interested in this? I know I am because of my bias… But what is going to be of interest to somebody else?’ So that way you can be very outcomes-focussed. How is it going to improve someone’s life? How is it going to make someone appreciate technology better?”
You have your background and your knowledge. Your audience has theirs. They probably aren’t as interested in your product’s technical details as you are.
As Rene Rose wrote last week as part of this series, “Ask yourself what type of stories you remember? Stories with a human touch or that reveal a hidden fact or personality of the subject are often most memorable.
“It is never a story filled to the brim with kW, torque ratings, codes, dashes, readings and a list of features and benefits.”
For Strom, trying to turn a scientific breakthrough into a story might begin by asking the researcher to explain it in five bullet points, each written in lay person’s language.
From there, he will pepper them with the sorts of questions journalists would: why is this relevant? How does it work? Can you put that more plainly?
“And the specialists will understand, ‘Oh right. You don’t understand that.’ I think with specialists, they assume so much in their day to day work that is beyond knowledge of you, me, or the average reader,” Strom Tells @AuManufacturing.
“It’s a question of breaking it down and making it a narrative about discovery and process and outcome rather than perhaps necessarily the fine details of the technicalities.”
Categories can assist with understanding.
Journalists will tell you there are maybe seven or eight genres of news values. A PR practitioner might frame a media release around one or more of these to make a story more relevant to journalists.
Strom believes there are four categories of science story that will interest the reader or viewer.
The least desirable (from the scientist’s point of view) is the scandal: “You faked it, you forged it, you’re corrupt.”
The other three are
- “how does this help me?”
- The journey; and
- The wow factor.
The first is simple enough: how could a discovery make life better?
“The journey” can be suitable if the technology is opaque or its applications unclear.
“Why has somebody been working on this for 20 years? What was their Eureka moment? Why are they obsessed with it? Something quirky about them,” explains Strom.
“And so you make it about the people behind the company or the people behind the discovery.”
Then there is “the wow factor” or “the dinner party” factor.
“When you’re telling these stories, you’re not trying to show people how smart you are or how smart your device is. You’re trying to help someone feel smarter or get smarter,” he says of this angle.
“They can then take that story to a dinner party and say, ‘hey, I was reading this very interesting article about this company that does X, Y or Z.’ So if you’re able to do that, you’ve made somebody else feel smarter or more interesting.”
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