Interview: Video as a tool for scientists to go beyond jargon

04 September 2011 | News story

All you need is a camera, computer and compelling story to tell. Jeff Morales of ScienceFilm talks about communicating science in this August 2011 interview by Susan Guthridge-Gould for IUCN CEC.

If you need to communicate science, consider video. “You can get a lot of information from a video, it sticks with you, and you really want to see what happens next,” says Jeff Morales, a producer affiliated with National Geographic Television since 1992 and co-founder of ScienceFilm in British Columbia, Canada.

Scientists are turning to video to attract funding, report on their work to the public, or inspire action. Technology is making video much more accessible. But you will need more than a camera and editing software to create a  video that goes beyond jargon. You will need a compelling story scripted with a beginning, middle and end.

ScienceFilm offers training workshops about how to tell science stories in a non-technical way. “A lot of people in science want to get away from preaching to the choir. In our workshops, they are learning to tell the story in a way that non-scientists can enjoy and actually understand,” Jeff says.

Why go beyond jargon?

“It’s all about accessibility,” Jeff explains, refering not only to convenient video technology but also 'access to information' and the need for wider access to scientific information. ”You could be off in some corner of the world doing some amazing work but, while this work has intrinsic value, it is important to share amazing stories with a wider audience. You need to communicate beyond the group you are working with. The aim is to inform people so they understand – get away from scientific jargon, not to dumb it down but to make is understandable to people outside your field.”

Learning to tell a story

At ScienceFilm workshops, the level of expertise and technical ability ranges from ‘never picked up a camera’ to people with good equipment and a good understanding of how to use it – but no story-telling skills. Lessons in the workshops, which typically run 7 to 10 days, focus on two areas: (1) storytelling and the importance of narrative and (2) making films look more professional.

After a few days, participants start to see things differently. Literature lessons in school covered the basics but the workshops apply them to science. Jeff says that perspectives change as participants progress in their projects, finding new ways to convey their knowledge: “Some of the storytelling techniques you may have learned in junior high school but we refresh that knowledge in the context of the science story you want to tell. For example, think of a character that you will follow through your film, what makes you care, what kind of conflict or obstacles does it face, how will it meet those challenges – it’s the arc of the story. Think of the goal: what does your character want to get and what stands in his/her way.”

Years ago the cost of 400 feet of film was high and only yielded 11 minutes of footage, making film out of reach for many scientists. “Now the tools are here,” Jeff says, “It is a new way to approach a topic you know well.”

For more information, or to view examples of videos by scientists, visit the ScienceFilm website. To register for the next workshop at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories, click here.

Jeff Morales is a member of the IUCN Commission on Education and Communication. You can reach him at Jeff@sciencefilm.org