Module 1 – Telling a science story to engage the audience

Part A: Making the most of interviews with scientists

Watch the following 3-minute video that features interviews with Liz Minchin (currently Queensland editor of The Conversation) and Mark Suleau (recently retired from Channel 10 after more than 40 years as a journalist). Both journalists have reported on science extensively, but neither have a science background.

‘Show, don’t tell’ is an often-used mantra in storytelling. It’s important to not say what you think is going on with an issue, but letting a source tell it in a way that shows what it means to them.

Good quotes tell your audience a story—they’re how you illustrate the picture-book in the audience’s head. An interview with a source is a precious piece of time for gathering someone’s insight and perspective on an issue.

Here are some top tips for getting the most out of your interviews with scientists:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘stupid’ question if you don’t understand what they are saying; you will need to explain it to others so that they can understand.
  • Ask personal questions: How does this discovery make you feel? What is the most exciting thing about your research?
  • Be prepared to interrupt someone who gives a long answer and/or goes off-topic.
  • Check back with them about anything you didn’t understand.

When you’re deciding which quotes to use, or whether to use one, check it meets all these criteria:

  • Does it state something in an interesting way or provide information that should be heard directly from the source?
  • Does it reveal the source’s opinions or feelings?
  • Does it back up the lead paragraph or a supporting point in your story?
  • Is the quote descriptive or dramatic?

The best interviews are those where:

  • you are well prepared and interested in the topic and the person you are interviewing
  • your purpose for doing the interview is clear
  • the interview is face to face.

Before the interview

  • Research as much as you can about the interviewee.
  • Consider the medium you’re interviewing for (newspaper, magazine, TV, radio, internet).
  • Consider the audience for the finished product; what do they want to know about this person and topic?
  • Think about the interviewee; will they be nervous, shy, busy and distracted, too technical, evasive? How will you deal with them?

During the interview

  • Be an active listener; the best interviewers do more listening than talking!
  • Don’t be afraid to ask the ‘stupid’ question if you don’t understand what they are saying; you will need to explain it to others so that they can understand.
  • Keep your questions open-ended. Only ask yes/no questions to clarify an answer.
  • Ask personal questions: How does this discovery make you feel? What is the most exciting thing about your research?
  • Be prepared to interrupt someone who gives a long answer and/or goes off topic.

After the interview

  • Check back with them about anything you didn’t understand.
  • Thank them for their time.
  • Send them copies of your story and photos.


There are many different forms of storytelling about science: radio, podcasts, TV, online news, books, blogs, print media, and the list goes on.

What stories about science were in the media in the past week? List the title of the story and the media outlet where the story was covered (add a web link if available), and write a sentence describing what the story was about. Try to list at least 10 stories from a variety of media outlets. The stories can be on the same topic.


Find one example of a science story that particularly grabs your interest.

What were the elements that interested you? How did the reporter grab your attention? Was there any sensationalism or controversy in the story? Can you think of how the story could take on different angles (i.e. be written for a business magazine, for example)? Discuss how the reporter illustrated concepts (graphics, controversy, quotes, case study). Is the story told in present or past tense? How did the reporter end the story?

For further reading/viewing/investigation

Atul Gawande is a New York surgeon. His brilliant articles are listed on the right-hand side of his page.

Open Education Database has a list of the 100 all-time greatest popular science books and Online College has collated their favourite science authors.

Jo Marchant speaks about science writing: ‘You need a burning curiosity’, she says.


Part B: Making science easier for an audience to get into

  • Describe research as a problem to be solved, which is attractive and accessible to audiences. Audiences can see trees dying in a paddock. But it’s more of a challenge to appreciate the work when it is described as ‘research into the physics of the root zone’.
  • Think audience! Put yourself in their shoes. Think about how little they might know about this field. What they are likely to find fascinating?
  • Keep it simple. Don’t alienate people with technical terms. But do so without being condescending.
  • Don’t assume people will understand. Ask a friend or neighbour to read it and tell you what they do and don’t understand. If they’re even a bit uncertain or confused, you’ve still got work to do.
  • Let your excitement and passion for the science come through! Once people sense that you really care about the research, you’ve got their attention.
  • Make your story memorable by including some ‘wow’ facts or visual language that feeds people’s imaginations.
  • Add eye-catching visuals to make your story even more compelling.
  • Get rid of marathon sentences.

Creating feature stories—top tips

A feature story differs from a straight news story in one respect—its intent.

A news story has information about an event, an idea or a situation. A feature story has that and more—it may interpret news, add depth and colour to a story, instruct and/or entertain.

Story ideas

Ideas come from everywhere. Watch, read, listen, keep up to date, take notes.

Talk to people outside the field of science to find out what interests them and what concerns them.


The introduction is the most important part. Entice your audience; draw them in using drama, emotion, a quotation, a question and/or a description.

The body of the story needs to keep any promises or answer any questions which you raised in the introduction. Try to maintain an ‘atmosphere’ throughout the story.

The conclusion should help the audience remember the story. Use a strong punchline.

Writing the story—12 tips

  1. Be clear about why you are writing the story. Is it to inform, persuade, observe, evaluate or evoke emotion?
  2. Focus on human interest—the feel and emotion you put into the story are critical. Don’t think about creating a ‘science’ story; think about creating a ‘human interest’ story.
  3. Accuracy is important—you can interpret and embroider but not fudge.
  4. Keep your audience clearly in mind. What are their desires? What really matters to them?
  5. Interview people for your feature story in-depth and in-person rather than over the phone. You’ll get a lot more colour and detail.
  6. Interview more than one person to get a more complete picture, but don’t add sources just to show how much work you’ve done. Be ruthless about who you put in and who you leave out.
  7. Use anecdotes and direct quotes to tell the story. Try not to use too many of your own words.
  8. Decide on the tense of your story at the start and stick to it. Present tense usually works best.
  9. Report in the active voice. In active language, people do things. Sentences using passive voice have things being done ‘by’ someone, or things being done anonymously. Passive voice makes your reporting sluggish.
  10. Avoid clichés (cutting-edge, world-beating, revolutionary) and sentimental statements, especially at the end of your story.
  11. Don’t rely on the computer spellchecker.
  12. Avoid lengthy, complex paragraphs. Your story will appear in columns, so one or two sentences per paragraph is enough.

Getting published—9 tips

  1. Select your market. List 6 magazines that could buy your story and study them. The articles and advertising will give you vital clues into the interests and demographics of the readers.
  2. Study the publications you want to report for. A surprising number of journalists don’t, and it shows.
  3. Send the publisher a proposal rather than a complete story. Include good examples of your previously published work.
  4. Report on what the editor wants to publish, not what you want to report on. Study the editorial and pieces by staff—they are aimed precisely at the publication’s target audience.
  5. Download the publisher’s editorial style guide for the publication and apply their style guidelines to your story.
  6. A picture sells the story. Offer good quality images as prints, transparencies or digital files. Check with the editor for their preferred option.
  7. Let the editor/deputy editor in the media outlet know you are sending them a story. Follow up with a phonecall a week or so after you’ve sent it.
  8. Send your story to only one media outlet initially. If they don’t want to use it within a set time period, send it elsewhere.


Stories with a scientific element can benefit greatly from images, whether it’s a TV, radio, print or online report. Find a science story with spectacular images online (look at news sites), and find a TV story about science (e.g. the video section on the ABC ‘science’ page).

Was the imagery used to entertain or explain? Is there merit in both? How well do you think it worked? Is there anything you’d change? How did the reporter build words (or not) around the imagery?

Part C: Writing profiles

[From Cub Reporters’ How to write a profile story]

“A profile story is a portrait of a person in words. Like the best painted portraits, the best profiles capture the character, spirit and style of their subjects. They delve beneath the surface to look at what motivates people, what excites them, what makes them interesting. Good profiles get into the heart of the person and find out what makes them tick.

“The problem is that lives are hard to fit into newspaper articles or even magazine articles, no matter how much space is allotted for them. Reporters who simply try to cram into a profile all the facts they can come up with inevitably end up with something more like a narrative version of a resume than a journalism story.

“Like all other stories, profiles must have an angle, a primary theme. That theme should be introduced in the lead, it should be explored and often it will be returned to at the end of the story. Something of a person’s character, spirit and style will then be revealed through that theme.

“Whatever the theme, it takes a thorough understanding of a person’s life to create a revealing sketch of that life. Reporters should spend time with their subjects while they’re doing whatever makes them newsworthy. For example, if you’re writing about a scientist researching koalas, try to go out with them into the field.

“Good profiles – and all good journalism stories – show, instead of telling. Use all five senses when you interview someone. What are they wearing? Do they fiddle nervously with their pencil? Is there a chocolate smudge on their shirt? Is their hair stylishly spiked?

“Because a profile cannot be complete without quotes – there is no way to write a profile without extensive interviewing. Frequently, more than one interview is necessary unless the writer already knows his subject well Good profiles also contain quotes from people who know the subject of your story well. Spice your story with the words of family, friends, enemies and the subjects themselves.

“Finally, good profiles strike the appropriate tone.  Think about your profile – is it a scientist who is involved in a serious issue, like eating disorders? You probably want to be more serious in your tone. Is it someone who gets to play with animals? You can be more playful and entertaining. But remember – your personal opinion is not appropriate. You are there to merely paint a picture of this person – to let the facts speak for themselves.”

Cub Reporters also offers a step by step guide for before, during and after the interview.


One day you may report on a human interest story—and scientists are no different to other people in their passion for their work. Find a profile story of a scientist.

What was the story’s title and where did you find it? (add a web link to the story if available). What elements did the reporter work into the profile? How detailed did they make research explanations? Describe what you particularly liked about the profile.

Check out all the exercises for this module.


For further reading/viewing/investigation

Some notable science storytelling from Public Library of Science blog posts:

Switched compiled a list of the 10 best science shows to watch online.

Australian Popular Science gives its verdict on the best science podcasts for the enjoyment of your ears and brain.

Another Aussie favourite is ABC’s Dr Karl podcasts and TV spots.


Scijourno is a collaborative project

UQlogoC-colour-M Econnect_logo_green_purple AusSMC-logo

The University of Western Australia also contributed to the academic advisory group.