Talking Tips

reporter

Advocating for your work in layman’s terms isn’t always easy, but it’s always important.

Whether it involves talking to your family around the Thanksgiving dinner table, giving a presentation at your child’s career day or explaining a research breakthrough to a reporter, our talking tips can help make the process a little easier.

Talking With Kids

Offer to go to your child’s classroom or call a local school and offer to be a guest speaker for a science class. Possible topics include “A Day in the Life of a Researcher,” “The Importance of Research” and “Career Planning Tips.”

Keep in mind that students will look to you as a role model and that they will want to be involved in the discussion. Make sure you explain how research — yours in particular — relates to them directly and to other humans and/or animals. Include references to the care and use of animals in research, as appropriate.

By sharing your knowledge in the classroom, you can help students to:

  • Understand the importance of the humane use of animals in biomedical research
  • Understand the vital role of science and technology in today’s world
  • Gain an understanding of the work scientists do
  • See scientists as real people
  • Lay the foundation for careers in science and technology

Another important benefit of sharing information about research with students is that it gives you an opportunity to correct misinformation they may have received about animal research and other controversial scientific topics from activist groups.

Gearing Your Presentation to the Appropriate Grade Level

While speaking in the classroom can be rewarding and fun, it also can be a challenge if you aren’t attuned the needs of your student audience. The following age-specific learning characteristics are good guidance when preparing materials for classroom presentations:

  • KINDERGARTEN–3RD GRADE (6–9 YEARS OLD)
  • Curious about the world around them
  • Very literal
  • 10-minute attention span
  • “Me”-centered
  • Can’t understand abstract concepts or ideas
  • 4TH–6TH GRADE (10–12 YEARS OLD)
  • Interested in things they know
  • Like puzzles, challenges
  • 20-minute attention span
  • Will work in groups
  • 7TH–8TH GRADE (13–14 YEARS OLD)
  • Attempt to be “cool” and may appear aloof
  • Sensitive about self, easily embarrassed
  • Will challenge authority
  • Can understand some abstract concepts
  • 20-minute attention span
  • 9TH–12TH GRADE (15–18 YEARS OLD)
  • Able to think in abstract terms
  • Able to carry on discussions
  • Appreciate hearing about what you do at your job, classes you took to become qualified, etc.
  • Important to have others think well of them (self-conscious)
  • Likely will need prodding to respond to requests for input or ask questions

Other Other Tips for Presenting to Students

  • Bring lots of props.
  • When possible, let students handle models, equipment (plastic, not glass), samples, stethoscopes or other items.
  • Stimulate thinking by asking questions.
  • Wait to distribute handouts until it is time to read or use them.
  • Use language the students will understand.
  • Don’t be offended if students are loud, spontaneous and excited.
  • Help set up an experiment that students can continue after you leave.
  • Ask for an evaluation of your efforts.

Obtaining Classroom Resources

NCABR provides free educational resources, including brochures and posters, that researchers can distribute in classrooms. For more information, please email us.

Talking With Adults

There are many ways for you to share information about your research with fellow adults. You can call a local civic group, religious organization or retirement community and offer to be a guest speaker at a meeting.

If you are involved in clinical practice, tell your patients about research that allowed you to diagnose and treat them and about the importance of stable funding for such research.

And be ready to explain what you do and why it’s important to your friends and neighbors. Have two or three easy-to-understand points ready to explain your work.

General Tips for Effective Public Speaking

  • Tailor your speech to the interests of your audience.
  • Rehearse your material aloud. Test it on friends, family or colleagues who can give you constructive criticism from a nonscientific point of view.
  • Learn your concepts and structure so that you can “tell” your information. Don’t memorize your speech.
  • Speak slowly. Remind yourself to slow down by putting slash marks between sentences in practice sessions.
  • Consider your speech an “enlarged conversation” and speak as naturally as you would to one other person.
  • Maintain eye contact with listeners throughout the presentation.
  • Let your enthusiasm for your work come through. People can appreciate and respond to professional dedication even when they cannot really understand the subject of a scientist’s research.

Tips for Giving a Presentation

  • Your speech should have an introduction, body (key points) and conclusion. Remember the clarity principle: Every generalization should be followed by a specific example or statement.
  • Be sure to help your audience understand why your topic is relevant to them, especially if you are talking about a highly technical area of research. Tell them about the ultimate impact of the research.
  • Don’t use too many facts and numbers — they numb people. Better to use anecdotes and human examples to illustrate a few numbers.
  • The conclusion should redirect audience attention to your purpose.
  • Make your appeal. If you want audience members to do something, tell them what to do.
  • Remember: The average American has an 8th-grade science education. Speak simply and concisely for best communication. It is an opportunity to improve your audience’s science literacy.
  • If you are challenged on a statement (such as the necessity for using research animals or the manner in which the Earth was created), you can do much to diffuse the situation by acknowledging respect for another’s beliefs and values and by framing your statements with “I” messages.
  • Never tell someone “you are wrong.” If it is clear that someone in your audience is making a statement based on misinformation, a good way to respond is to ask, “May I tell you something more (or give you additional information) about that?” Asking permission to convey the facts is more likely to induce the person to listen.

Responding to Audience Questions

There are two ways to set up a question-and answer-session following a presentation.

If time is limited, you may wish to have audience members write their questions on index cards to be passed to you once you have finished speaking. Either you or someone you designate can screen the cards by selecting those you wish to answer.

An open session is more difficult to control, but it may be more satisfying to your audience. After you acknowledge an audience member, repeat his/her question to be sure everyone has heard it and to give yourself time to formulate an answer.

You should be able to anticipate many queries. Write out expected questions and your answers before your presentation. The session will be more interesting if you can introduce some new information in your responses.

When someone asks several questions at once, you are free to choose the one you would like to answer and ignore the others. If the question is one you would rather not answer directly, use it to lead into a point you do want to make. If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so. But cite a possible source of the information or offer to get the information for the questioner.

Always finish on a high note. Don’t keep answering questions when audience interest seems to have waned. You can invite those who have unanswered questions to speak to you privately at the conclusion of the program.

How to Handle a Debate

You may find yourself invited to participate in a panel discussion or debate with animal rights activists. Decline such invitations until you feel comfortable about handling them. If you encounter vocal opposition during a debate, the following suggestions should get you through a confrontation:

  • Remember that you are representing reason. No matter how great the provocation, control your temper. When your opponents rant and rave, you will win points for your restraint.
  • Debate about the humane use of animals in biomedical research often is not polite. You must be able to hold the floor despite attempts to interrupt you. Raise your voice slightly to override the interruptions as you continue to speak. Use body language to assert your authority. Keep your head up and look directly at your opponent in an assertive way. Lean forward and put out your hand as though motioning “stop.”
  • When you have difficulty getting a word in edgewise, make a general plea by saying, “I’d like to address that point.” Then, plunge right in.
  • Stick to a few basic points that you wish to communicate, such as the necessity for animal research in the past, present and future, and why it is so important.
  • Animal rights activists will try to bury you in irrelevant details and misinformation. If you establish your own agenda, you’ll be effective.

Working With Your PR/Communications Department

When a significant research development occurs, tell your organization’s public relations/communications staff as soon as it is ready for public consumption. A newsworthy item can generate a news release and subsequent media attention, which, in turn, can prompt public support. Be sure the release identifies your funding source, especially if it is a tax-supported group, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Talking With Reporters

The reporter is the link between you and your audience, which consists of community leaders, elected officials and the general public. The reporter, like your audience, probably will not be an expert in medical research, so you will want to develop a well-crafted, easily understood message. Preparation is as important as performance.

Before the Interview

  • If you have been called for an interview, always ask what the story is about. You may not be the appropriate person to interview. If you are the appropriate person and the reporter requests to interview you immediately, ask if you can put him/her on hold to collect your thoughts and pull data that could be useful. Alternatively, ask if you can call the reporter back in a few minutes. Be aware that some reporters will insist to speak with you immediately in order to meet a deadline.
  • If you schedule another time to meet or talk, do your homework. Prepare numbers and real-life examples. Be prepared for all possible questions. If possible, run through a mock interview for practice. And above all, return the reporter’s call as quickly as possible.
  • Select three or four key points on which you will continue to focus throughout the interview.

During the Interview

  • State your key points first. Be concise and get to the point.
  • To increase your chances of being quoted, use bold, short, catchy statements. Cite human interest examples.
  • Assume the reporter is not an expert in your specific field. Restate key points when needed and speak in nonscientific terms. Don’t use unfamiliar terms without defining them.
  • When answering a question, never restate a negative question or use a controversial word that first was used by the reporter. Don’t repeat a “buzz word” when providing an answer. Always acknowledge the question and answer in your language, then “bridge” quickly to your major point(s). Turn a negative into a positive.
  • Be candid. Honesty is the best policy. If you don’t know an answer, say so, but offer to find out for the reporter. Evasive responses will make the reporter suspicious.
  • Volunteer important information. Reporters appreciate information that adds to the story and leads to further questions.
  • Don’t be intimidated by a reporter’s silence. Once you make your point, stop talking.

After the Interview

  • Ask questions. Make sure the reporter has all the facts straight. For complex or controversial statements, ask the reporter to read quotes back to you for accuracy. Keep in mind, however, that reporters seldom allow sources to approve a full story.
  • If you realize you told the reporter something that is wrong, call him/her back as soon as possible to correct your mistake.
  • Inquire about the final product. It’s OK to ask when the story will run, but remember that, because the decision is made by their editors, many reporters will not know the specific date.
  • Give feedback. Newspapers, magazines and many reputable blogs run corrections for major mistakes and omissions. If a mistake is minor, it is best to let it go. Serious problems should be brought to the reporter’s attention. If a story is well-done, compliment the reporter.

Additional Tips for a Successful Interview

  • Adhere to the belief that there is no such thing as “off the record.” If you don’t want to hear it on the evening news, don’t say it.
  • For radio or TV interviews, be aware of your surroundings. Avoid noisy places. For TV interviews, wear simple, solid-colored clothing and choose an interview location with an interesting background. Look at the interviewer, not at the camera. Pause briefly before answering questions.
  • Assume the microphone or tape recorder always is on. Don’t let down your guard at the end of an interview.

Writing Letters to the Editor

The most effective strategy to ensure you get a letter published is to be a regular reader of the paper and to respond quickly to a specific story.

Steps to Take

  • Look for any story to which you can draw a link to medical research.
  • Include a few passionate sentences about why you agree or disagree with the article. Be sure at least one sentence: (a) mentions the article or newsworthy issue to which you are responding, and (b) refers to a local figure, company, hospital or university.
  • Make sure your letter contains no more than 250 words.
  • Be sure to include your name, mailing address, email address and home and business phone numbers.
  • Be sure to sign the letter.
  • Watch the paper for two to three weeks to see if your letter is run.

Suggestions

  • Don’t be discouraged if your letter isn’t run. The mere fact the editor saw a letter about medical research means that his/her awareness has increased. If you write letters often enough, one will be printed. If you don’t write any, none will.
  • If you ghostwrite a letter that is signed by a prominent researcher, business leader or community figure, the chances of it being run may increase.
  • Get others to respond to the same article. The more a paper hears from people about an issue, the more likely it is to print a response.

Be sure to sign the letter.
Watch the paper for two to three weeks to see if your letter is run.
Suggestions
Don’t be discouraged if your letter isn’t run. The mere fact the editor saw a letter about medical research means that his/her awareness has increased. If you write letters often enough, one will be printed. If you don’t write any, none will.
If you ghostwrite a letter that is signed by a prominent researcher, business leader or community figure, the chances of it being run may increase.
Get others to respond to the same article. The more a paper hears from people about an issue, the more likely it is to print a response.

Writing Op-eds

Op-eds, like letters to the editor, are an opportunity for you to get your opinion printed in the newspaper. An op-eds, which is short for “opposite editorial,” is a 750- to 1,000-word article that appears adjacent to the editorial page. Most op-eds relate to issues being discussed somewhere in the paper.

Steps to Take

  • Make sure the topic of your op-ed is an issue that is being discussed in your community. Mention local figures and institutions in order to drive your message home to readers in your area.
  • Send the piece, along with a cover letter, to the publication of your choice. It is important to send your op-ed to only one paper. If competing papers run the same piece, the likelihood of future pieces bearing your name being printed in either paper will decrease markedly. If the first paper declines to run your op-ed, you can send it elsewhere.

Suggestions

  • If a larger paper doesn’t run your op-ed, try a weekly newspaper or specialized publication (newsletter, community paper, alumni magazine, etc.).

Strong vs. Weak News Stories

Examples of Strong Stories

  • Original research findings that have practical applications, are tied to newsworthy topics or just have been revealed in a paper or at a meeting
  • Unique or unusual programs that take a significant step toward a solution to a national problem
  • Expert commentary that interprets current events or new, controversial points of view
  • Interesting or unusual personalities

Examples of Weak Stories

  • Faculty/staff appointments
  • Awards/activities that fall outside “strong” news
  • Programs/events that are similar to ones that exist elsewhere

Visiting Your Congressional Representative(s)

According to congressional staffers, no method of communication has more impact on an elected official than a personal visit from a constituent. Stakeholders in research routinely should visit their congressional representatives (at home and in Washington, D.C.) and should encourage friends and colleagues to do the same.

To have a successful congressional visit, the visit should not be the first time your congressional representative and his/her staff has heard from you.

What to Do

  • Begin cultivating a relationship with your congressional representative and his/her staff by sending letters of introduction, a newsletter about your organization and facts about bioscience research. Let them know the importance of your research to human and animal health and to the state’s economy.
  • Call two or three weeks before the date you would like the visit to take place. It is entirely possible that your senator or representative will be unable to meet with you personally. However, legislative aides provide valuable opportunities because these staffers research the issues and make recommendations to the legislator. Keep in mind you can visit the legislator in Washington, D.C., or at the district office, where he/she will have a more flexible schedule.
  • Prepare talking points. They will help keep you on track and serve as a “leave behind” for the legislator and staff members.
  • Be concise and be brief. You may have no more than 15 minutes to state your case.
  • Open the dialogue with information about the value of bioscience research to the community/state. The legislator and his/her staff may not know the extent to which this research affects the economy and health of your community. Invite others involved in research in your area to attend the meeting and share information about what they are doing and its potential impact.
  • Write a thank you note immediately after the visit and ask the legislator to keep you informed about the action he/she is taking.
  • Challenge colleagues to make similar visits. The more visits, the more the overall impact!

Other Tips

  • It is particularly important to quickly establish a relationship with first-term legislators; they are looking for people to serve as resources in fields they may never have encountered legislatively.
  • Always leave materials with legislators and/or staffers after your visit. If you are in Washington, D.C., but aren’t able to schedule an appointment, at least drop by your congressional representative’s office and leave your card and/or materials.
  • As a way of maintaining the relationship, send letters to legislators as soon as an issue comes up. Offer yourself or your organization as a resource for him/her and staff, as well as for constituents who may call with questions.

Writing to Your Congressional Representative(s)

According to congressional staff, few methods of communication have a bigger impact on a legislator than a personal letter from a constituent. (Only phone calls and visits rank higher.) As a result, stakeholders in research routinely should send letters to Congress and encourage friends and colleagues to do the same.

Here’s How

  • Use letterhead with your home (voting) address — this caries more weight with an elected official — unless you are in a position to speak for your institution (e.g. CEO, chancellor, president).
  • Keep the letter focused on one specific topic. Make reference to past support of a related issue to show you have an ongoing interest in the legislator’s issues.
  • Don’t attack your legislator or make him/her feel defensive.
  • Provide supporting information.
  • If writing in reference to specific legislation, state the name and number of the bill.
  • Distribute template letters to members of your local community (university faculty, steering committee, civic club members, boards of trustees, etc.) to be put on their own letterhead.
  • Ask others sending letters to forward the call to action to their own mailing list. Remember that your advocacy does make a difference. One letter carries the weight of 400 voters.
  • Contact your institution’s government relations office for assistance in writing letters, planning a site visit and scheduling a meeting with your elected officials.
  • When you receive federal funding, write to your House and Senate members to thank them for their help in bringing tax dollars into their district. Tell them what they’re “buying” with those dollars: jobs, health care savings and, most important, a contribution to the health and well-being of people in their home district, the nation and the world.
Adapted From

Portions of these tips have been adapted from:

  • Communications Manual, published by the Washington Association for Biomedical Research

  • Keys to Advocacy: Working With the Media and Building Strong Partnerships, published by Research!America

  • What to Do When a Reporter Calls…, published by North Carolina State University News Services