If you’re like most scientists, you spend far more time worrying about getting your name on a paper than in the paper. Concerns over misrepresentation, peer perception and busy schedules keep scientists from reaching out to the media and, by extension, the public.
Sharing your science is beneficial to both the public and your own research. Being interviewed or writing a press release forces you to distill your research and may even help you rediscover some of your excitement and passion for the research. In addition, being published in a widely read medium gets your research out there where it can help bring collaborators and funding to your project.
Press releases are a way to release your discoveries from the bubble of academia and send them drifting out into the world. This push doesn’t happen without some nervousness, but writing a good press release and understanding how the media works goes a long way towards alleviating any potential concerns. Here are a few tips for writing a good press release that I’ve learnt along the way.
Don’t just send your abstract
This is the most important rule. Everyone reading it knows that’s exactly what you did and will stop reading after the fourth sentence of background. Scientists may think they have the market on being busy, but science communicators and journalists are working to unforgiving deadlines. The goal of the press release is twofold: capture the media’s attention and ease their workload by providing them with material and a solid starting point.
Where to seek some advice
Within universities and companies, there are typically people trained in science communication. It is actually part of their job to help you get your research out, and they have invaluable insight into how to write a press release, who to send it to, and how to make your discovery interesting and relevant. That being said, it still sometimes falls on you to write the press release.
Pretend it’s a news article
When writing a press release, the best policy is to write it as closely to a news article as possible. Unlike writing an abstract or story, news articles start big and then fill in details. A good general policy is to get the gist of the story in the first two sentences. Read a few well-written articles and try to copy their style and formatting.
Journalistic writing is almost the exact opposite of scientific writing. You want a voice to shine through. Use short sentences and short paragraphs. Write in sound bites of information and use active voice. Read it all aloud, and then decide if there’s awkward phrasing or overly complex sentences.
Focus on the content
Style matters, but content matters more. Content usually comes in two forms: quotes or paraphrase, and explanatory paragraphs. A good policy is to add quotes from the primary people involved in the project and one outside source in the field, maybe even one that doesn’t fully agree. Quotes are the best place to let personality shine through, so try to avoid using quotes for simple explanation or using generic quotes that don’t really say anything unique. Use the quotes to add humor, break-up long explanations and the reveal the personality of the people involved. Scientists are awesome and quirky people, and that makes for good reading.
Know your audience
Although it’s important to keep it interesting, it’s also important to share science in a way that is both approachable and accurate. This isn’t always an easy task. There are a few things you can do to help a non-expert understand though. David Dobbs, a science journalist for Wired, gave this excellent piece of advice in an interview for The Guardian, “hunt down jargon and kill it”. I would add that sometimes it’s even hard to know what is and isn’t jargon for your own field. My best advice? Give the press release to a smart but non-scientific friend or relative and have them point out anything they find boring or don’t understand. Then fix it until they do understand.
My last piece of advice is to relax. If it’s a little rough, a good science journalist or communicator can smooth it out and turn it into a polished article. You’re writing about your passion, and all you have to do is let that enthusiasm shine through.
Do you have any more tips for how to a great write press release or how to get your research out there? Let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you.
Featured image from Chris Metcalf.