Inspiring Australia: some instructive silliness

A workshop in which we delve into the dark arts of publicity

So when we’re trying to publicise a scientific story, what do we need to ask? How about

  • What’s the story?
  • Why am I telling it?
  • Who is the audience?
  • Why are they interested?
  • What tools do I have to tell the story with?
  • How am I going to use them?

And remember, to get noticed, you don’t need a good story. There are plenty of good stories. You need a great one.

Sometimes, you’re going to have to fight your scientists to get to tell the story in a way that will get it noticed. Scientists can tend to want to put everything in. Sometimes you need to be the equivalent of the bouncer in a nightclub.

And you’re going to have to remember that many people’s knowledge of science (and I use the word ‘knowledge’ unbelievably loosely) comes from movies. There’s actually a group called Hollywood Science(?) which aims to keep the violations of the laws of physics down to one per scene. No doubt somewhere out there there’s an avid fan of Avatar (probably the second worst movie ever made, and don’t even think of asking what the worst one was) who thinks there’s a mineral called Unobtanium (lazy scriptwriting there, but who needs a script when you’ve got CGI and cheesy twinkling trees?

So how are we going to write a terrific science story? Well, in this workshop, we did it competitively. Here are the scoring criteria.

  • Clear definition of topic and audience. What is the science being communicated, and to whom?
  • Clarity of presentation for target audience
  • Accuracy of science
  • Level of attention-getting or holding
  • Entertainment factor (amusing, quirky, original dramatic)
  • Extra points for appealing to an audeince who have recently lost a loved one
  • Triple points for appealing directly to the dearly departed

One team (my team, the winning team, gloat, gloat) went for the tear jerker. We appeared on Oprah, targetting the 25-40 female audience who are worried about nukes. We gave them little Timmy, only five years old, and his mother. Timmy’s brain tumour wasn’t diagnosed until a brain scan using molybdenum99 revealed an operable, but hitherto hidden tumour. The mother spoke about how Timmy would be dead if it weren’t for radio isotopes. And as he wrapped his little arms around her neck (Timmy is actually a doctoral student from JCU, so there was a certain supension of disbelief), and piped ‘I love you Mummy’, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Another group targeted the older members of the community, exhorting them to reduce their postumous carbon footprint using the LifeGem Process and be compressed into a diamond. They made their pitch through funeral directors and aged care homes. I LOVE black humour.

A third gave us the sushi savior net, which fools opportunistic whales into thinking fish enshrouded in them are tangles in the net. (Don’t snicker, it exists). A nicely targetted appeal to environmentalists, whale lovers and, well, tuna.

What we learned:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it tight
  • Keep it until you’ve got something really interesting to say. A constant barrage of news releases will get you put in the ‘ignore’ pile.
  • Follow up with a phone call.
  • Respect the journalists’ deadlines. You can’t say ‘I’ll get back to you in an hour’ when the deadline’s 10 minutes away.

And that it’s really, REALLY hard to interest dead people in anything.

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