Talking rubbish

After a year of talking about talking, on Wednesday I talked at Strathclyde Uni under the title ‘Science on Screen.’ There was some confusion about the audience: I was expecting about 40 who’d previously done a science communication module, but thanks to a bit of a mix-up it seems basically nobody received the notice, so I ended up with about eight random post-docs.

Hmm. ‘Less of a lecture and more a fireside chat, then,’ I thought, as I frantically deleted slides.

So I didn’t get to pinch Christopher Booker’s genius comparison of the opening of Gilgamesh with Dr. No, and I didn’t get to use that as a lead-in to discuss the philosophy of science in the context of narrative theory (in ten minutes). Which is a shame, because now that I’ve done the rest of it, I think it might actually work. When I was writing the talk it felt like a ridiculous exaggeration of how media professionals think – but actually, I think it’s the stuff we pick up as we go along, and hence take for granted without even noticing.

Dropping it on post-grads would have been fun. I did retain a bit describing the five-act structure and Robert McKee, and hence ad-libbed my way through an example of why all Horizons are basically the same. Which got a gratifying number of laughs as I did it, and a couple of ‘woah!’s. Which was nice.

My developing thesis goes something like this:

  1. There are lots of science engagement projects out there, but too many of them are unsophisticated, ignore best practice, and suffer from low impact.
  2. This is partly because working scientists don’t realise ‘science communication’ is a discipline in its own right, with Stuff to Learn. And when they see it, they don’t recognise it, because science communicators often aren’t very good at being clear about what they do either.
  3. Dropping a mad lump of communications theory on scientists can actually work, in that it jolts them out of assuming it’s all straightforward – hence my slide on narrative theory, and trying to frame that in terms that make sense to scientists.
  4. If done right, I think this may be a way of explaining to scientists what media people mean when we ask ‘Yes, but what’s the story?’ – which in turn I think leads to better, more engaging, engagement projects.
  5. There’s a convenient model for ‘proper’ storytelling in science already – the lecture demo. We all recognise them when we see them, and analysing them as five-act stories (yes, really) helps explain why some are more satisfying than others.
  6. Thus, when it comes to short web films, science is in a really strong position, because we already have this vast catalogue of suitable material. I can’t think of another subject that does, actually.
  7. Hence: SciCast. Hurrah.

In most circumstances it won’t be appropriate to cover this stuff, which is a shame, because it’s fun but also feels like it’s actually useful. Which I wasn’t really expecting when I started down this route, on Tuesday. Somewhere since then I must have had a turning point.

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