AsianScientist (Jul. 10, 2015) – Carting hefty non-fiction books home from the library; stocking my pantry with copious amounts of vinegar and baking soda; struggling to keep up with terms like ‘globular cluster’ and ‘mycelium’—parenting a science obsessed boy sometimes feels like assisting a mad professor. Chaos in the kitchen is never far away, as I try to keep a lid on the slow cooker as well as the piles of drawings of spinosauri, fungi and Alpha Centauri.
Generally, I manage it. But things went to a scary new level when I suddenly found a TV crew and journalist in my kitchen, interviewing my six-year-old about his passion for making nature documentaries.
How did it come to this? How does one cope when suddenly faced with presenting your private science obsession to the media?
My son Jordan is living proof of the power and importance of answering this question well.
His love of science grew from watching science documentaries. From BBC staples like Planet Earth, Walking with Dinosaurs, Wonders of the Universe, to Discovery Channel’s How the Universe Works, the History Channel’s The Universe, and of course, the series that started it all, Bill Nye the Science Guy—he’s worked his way through most of the DVD catalog at our local library.
So I wasn’t surprised when he told me that he wanted to make his own documentaries about mushrooms, dinosaurs and space.
Thankfully we live in the golden age of home science movies so we got started right away. He began by taking photos and short videos with his digital camera. He would discuss the content and storyline with me, and would then write a script. I would help him put his documentaries together using Keynote or iMovie, and upload the finished products on YouTube.
When I started a blog chronicling my family’s move from Singapore to New Zealand, I asked Jordan if he wanted his own page on my website. He did, and that’s how his blog, Jordan’s Universe began. And the rest, as Jordan would say, is history up until this point in time and not including the dinosaur age when there were no humans or cameras.
The Day the Cameras Came
It all began with an email I received from a reporter from our local community station, Dunedin Television, who had stumbled upon Jordan’s blog on Twitter and watched some of his home made documentaries. She asked if we wanted to tell his story to Dunedin and asked if we would be available for a short interview and video shoot.
Jordan was absolutely delighted, and started gathering all his mushroom and space books in preparation for the interview.
“I can’t wait to tell the journalist about every single one of my favorite mushrooms!” he exclaimed.
Therein lay one of the great dilemmas of science communication. A basic equation of supply and demand. On one hand, you have Jordan who wants to share his almost bottomless fount of knowledge of all things fungal, and on the other, a journalist who has to cram that information into a pithy two minute news clip for the person in the street.
How then, was one to prep a six-year-old to be clear and succinct for his first ever science-related media interview?
Fortunately, for once my own passions were in planetary alignment with my son’s; I was able to draw on my public relations experience as well as use my love of social media to ask for tips on how to help my son successfully transit from fungal foray to media foray.
What I quickly realized was that some media tips help everyone—from six-year-old emerging scientists to seasoned academics—present some order from chaos.
Here are five that helped us (many thanks to an experienced news producer friend of mine for the first two tips!):
Five Tips to Acing a Media Interview
- Jot down milestones in your scientific journey.
I sat down with Jordan and wrote a short list charting the months from the birth of his interest in mushrooms, to what prompted his interest in making documentaries and blogging. This five minute task really clarified how he got to where he was today.
It also meant that when the reporter asked him when he became interested in making documentaries, he answered with ease and without hesitation.
- Don’t worry about tidying up your workspace. Get a haircut instead.
I must admit that I had a mild panic attack at the thought of a video shoot in my kitchen, which I describe as in a permanent state of disheveled comfort. Since having my second boy, all pretensions of maintaining a Home and Living type set-up evaporated like the hand sanitizer that permanently graces our bench top.
I wondered how close to the news crew’s arrival I could delay the tidy up and so leave the least amount of time for my two-year-old to undo my efforts as surely as the tide collapses every neat little sandcastle.
But a piece of advice from my friend immediately injected some zen into my day:
“No need to do major tidying up, the camera can capture very little background. Better off spending the time going for a haircut.”
So I spent my time making sure Jordan and I looked vaguely presentable instead, which made for a much more pleasant lead-up to the interview.
- Speak in full sentences.
The reporter sent us her questions a day before the interview. When I went through them with Jordan, I realized he was answering her questions in short phrases. Example:
Q: Where are your favorite places to go mushroom hunting?
Jordan’s initial answer: “Woodhaugh Gardens, the Botanic Gardens and Ross Creek.”
I showed Jordan a few news clips for comparison, and explained how his message would come across better if he answered in full sentences. He understood immediately, and rephrased his answer to, “My favorite places to hunt for mushrooms are Woodhaugh Gardens, the Botanic Gardens and Ross Creek.”
Never too early to learn about what makes a sound bite, I think!
- Use plain language.
Cutting straight to the point is the forte of many six-year-olds, which is great for the media—it helps them distill their learnings into clear one-liners.
It’s something that all subject matter experts should strive for, if you want your messages to connect with your audience.
- Relax and try to have fun.
What struck me most about Jordan’s first media experience was how every single aspect of it was novel and exciting. The look of pure delight on his face when the camera man yelled “Action!” is something I’ll always remember. And I think that sense of fun came through in how he handled himself on camera.
Ultimately, what I learnt was that while the science itself is important, it’s the passion you have for the topic that shines through and resonates with the audience.
This article is from a monthly column called Mushroom Mum. Click here to see the other articles in this series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Dora Yip.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.