Science Communication Conference 2011 — Hearing from the Experts: Glenn Elliot and Dr John Watt

By Michael Edmonds 06/03/2011

Ever Wondered is a TV series which looks at innovative and cutting edge research that is being carried out in New Zealand. Presented by Dr John Watt, MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year 2009 and created by Buto Productions, with Glenn Elliott as Executive Producer, it was fascinating to hear from these two experts. The interaction between Glenn and John during their presentation showed a great deal of mutual respect, good humour and focus in the production of a top notch scientific programme.

John described his work with Buto Productions as a baptism of fire. The world of TV has a whole new terminology, techniques and ideas. It seems that John has adapted well to this new world given the quality of the Ever Wondered interviews and his fluent use of TV terms during the presentation. Key points that John made about the world of TV science included:

1)      Only talk about ONE aspect of your research. (Although you may have many aspects to your research, discussing more than one can quickly become confusing).

2)      Don’t assume base knowledge. What may seem trivial to you after many years working in your field of expertise may not be trivial to the audience.

3)      TV likes sound bites. While scientists can talk for hours about their research, TV is best suited to short sharp ideas, or sound bites.

4)      Use visuals. Diagrams, models, coloured solutions or something that moves or goes wiz bang. This does not include esoteric diagrams or large ‘black box’ (or beige box, as I think Glenn mentioned) pieces of equipment. The audience want to see something in action and/or colour.

5)      With science communication ‘the more you do it, the easier it becomes.’

John also explained that high quality television programmes such as Ever Wondered were not only the result of his and Glenn’s work but the result of expert camera operators, editors and many other contributors to the programme.

Glenn claimed his part of the presentation was unprepared, but it was brilliant. Very direct, witty and he calls a spade a spade. Glenn described the type of work he does as ‘an emotional journey for the audience.’ If we want to engage them we need to do it on an emotional level as well as an intellectual level. This means making what we are describing have some meaning for the audience. Glenn also believes that everyone loves science, which was great to hear.

And just as John has learnt much from Glenn and his colleagues, Glenn has learnt a lot from John. And Glenn provided us with a unique perspective on science. He described the peer review process as being as ‘ruthless’ as ‘cagefighting’ which got a great laugh from the audience.  He also pointed out that:

1)      People respond to strong bold statements. (Which is a challenge for scientists who by their very nature talk in terms of probability)

2)      People need to be able to relate to the statements you make. An emotional response is needed.

3)      The need to show Passion and Enthusiasm for science.

Ever Wondered is produced for TVNZ7 and a second series will be produced shortly. Glenn pointed out that if scientists want to keep having science based programmes made and played in New Zealand, that we all should be lobbying TVNZ7 and other channels to tell them how important science programming is.

I can’t work out how to embed a video from a TVNZ site (I assume there may be issues with copyright), so if you want to check out an episode of Ever Wondered go here. You know you want to.  🙂