To help a group of scientists and experts across Scotland’s Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutions (SEFARI) build their skills around media engagement, SEFARI Gateway recently funded two media training sessions with former senior editors who now specialise in media training and strategic content at Second City Creative.
The sessions were organised by Elaine Maslin (from The James Hutton Institute) and in this blog Elaine talks about the training and shares some useful practical tips.
You know your subject matter inside out and it’s time to share it with the wider public. What better way is there to do that than through broadcast media – the most used source of news in Scotland? But the moment a camera is trained on you, the microphone has been switched on and the broadcast journalist readies to ask the first question, you freeze. It’s hard to even remember your name. It’s a situation we all fear. But it’s also one we can master and turn to our advantage so that we can better share our science and the impact it has.
The recent media training sessions, filmed by a professional cameraman, were, therefore, geared towards helping those with relevant stories to tell, but also with limited media experience. The goal was to learn some of the tools needed and get the expertise within SEFARI to a wider audience when under the spotlight.
We brought together research colleagues from across The James Hutton Institute’s Aberdeen and Invergowrie campuses, as well as from the Rowett Institute in Aberdeen and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland (BioSS). Taking part in the training were Dr Katharine Preedy, from BioSS; Professor Karen Scott, co-director of the University of Aberdeen Centre for Bacteria in Health and Disease and Professor Baukje de Roos, an internationally recognised nutrition scientist, both based at the Rowett Institute; from the Hutton, there was Professor Ian Toth, Director of the National Potato Innovation Centre, Agronomist Andrew Christie, Dr Tim George, who was recently appointed Deputy Director of the International Barley Hub, Dr Tom Parker, a peatland and soils expert, Dr Jagadeesh Yeluripati, who works in environmental and computing science around monitoring and predicting how much carbon is in soils, Dr Alice Hague, an environmental social scientist focusing on climate change, Dr Ingo Hein, head of potato research at the Hutton, and Fanny Tran, from ecological sciences.
These colleagues were taken through real-life broadcast interview scenarios on projects they are working on right now. They learnt how we can shape the stories we have to tell and how to distill them into 90 second videos.
It was an enlightening experience, arming our experts with some top tips, from not being tempted to go off topic, to what to wear and how to stand when in front of the camera!
- Where to start a broadcast media opportunity? Claim, fact, narrative
Training provider Second City Creative say it’s best to start with a simple structure around which to build your story. This is based on three elements: claim, facts and narrative.
- The claim is like your headline – your standout line. This could be the headline result of your research, for example.
- The facts are then two or three facts that back up your claim.
- The narrative is then what this means – why should anyone care, why is this important?
It’s worth remembering colleagues also have the support of the communications teams. They will liaise with the broadcast outlet’s production team, which often involves agreeing a topic and even questions in advance.
What’s important is to remember when doing a media interview, is that you’re the expert – you’re there to help them and their audience understand this topic. They’ve come to the right place. So, agree the topic in advance, work on your claim, your facts and your narrative. Practise them and remember that they’ve come to you as the expert and they’re generally looking for help with a topic. You are unlikely to be faced with a very aggressive interviewer, such as you may see in interviews with a government minister.
Image: A colleague being filmed in a practice media interview
- Lights, camera, action
When you’re in front of the camera, it’s easy to get distracted, lose your thread and get taken off on tangents by the journalist. Worst case is you say something off topic and they get more interested in that, resulting in the work you wanted to highlight being cut out during editing.
So, stick to your story. That might mean repeating yourself. It may feel like you’re ignoring or avoiding some questions – but there are techniques you can use to do this politely and professionally and then refocus on your key messages. Practising and sticking to a few short and snappy key messages will help you through and help you to get your research and message out.
Our experts were each put through an on-camera interview by Second City. Then – the painful bit – they had to watch themselves back and appraise their efforts. But it wasn’t as bad as all that. There was self-reflection, around moving too much, making a glib comment or not getting a point across clearly enough. But as far as the trainers were concerned, the participants all applied the techniques they had learned well. By the end of the session they were able to explain their particular area of scientific expertise and tell their stories in a way that would connect with a non-expert audience.
Following the longer interview sessions, each expert was challenged to get their story across in a single short clip. That’s no easy task, but in fact it really helped to distil their messages. It’s a useful exercise you can try at home!
Image: Watching back practise interviews
- Here’s what our trainers had to say
Second City were really pleased with their learners. “The group got stuck in. They were very willing to engage and to learn and they had some fascinating stories to share,” says Valerie Darroch, Director of Second City Creative. “We certainly saw progress on the day and a growing awareness of what is required and how to follow a structure that makes it easier to deliver a clear and concise message.”
Valerie and fellow director Roland Main each have decades of experience in newsrooms as business journalists and editors working on national newspapers, magazines and for an international news agency as well as in television. They specialise in providing media training and strategic communications advice to board members and senior executives from private and public companies as well as to leading research institutions.
They have developed a “claim-facts-narrative” structure as a core part of their media training course. It explains how to formulate a compelling media story as well as how to share it - it was a real hit with all the trainees. The approach really helped focus the mind on being clear about the claim – the headline you want to make – emphasising the most important points, while using facts that were relatable. In addition, the last element, “Why does what you are saying really matter?”, especially helped to nail down what our experts wanted to say.
- Some top interview tips shared by the participants/trainees
“Take time to prepare. Think about what you want to say, and make sure that’s your opening line.”
“The interviewee can formulate the main message (claim) and narrative (why this is important)… We shouldn’t expect the journalist to come up with the good/clever questions…. The framework works well to get the main claim out upfront, even if that is not necessarily the opening question.”
“Get your priorities in early, in case the interview is cut short or a different angle grabs their attention before they get to your main message.”
“Have your first answer ready, whatever the opening question. Starting off with a strong soundbite can give you confidence for the rest of the interview.”
- Other practical tips
Don’t wear all blue or green and avoid busy patterns that might strobe under a camera. Don’t sway or move around too much otherwise you’ll make the cameraman’s job hard.
Feel free to gesture with your hands if that is your normal style. It can help you come over as more natural and engaging on camera – as long as you don’t gesticulate too wildly, which would be distracting.
Don’t take rustling papers ‘on set’ and be wary of wearing jangly jewellery or watches that might make a noise and even clothes that rustle a lot. These can ruin the sound quality, although the production team will work with you on any issues like this.
Finally, and importantly, remember to think about your target audience. This will dictate some of what you say, for example how much detail you go into and the language you use. Generally, avoid jargon or scientific terms that may not be widely understood. While there wasn’t enough time in the session to talk through all the different target audiences there could be unfortunately, this is key and will need to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. It is worth looking at a channel or outlet’s audience and the type of programme or publication and thinking about who you want to reach and what you want to say in advance. Preparation and training definitely helps!
Elaine Maslin, media officer at The James Hutton Institute in Aberdeen.