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How #tweetyourthesis can help academics prepare for media interviews

Approx. reading time: 3 minutes

The #tweetyourthesis hashtag has been doing the social media rounds in higher education since it was coined by Susan Greenberg, a lecturer at Roehampton in 2012. Or that’s what my own very cursory and possibly unreliable Google-based research tells me. Whatever the hashtag’s origin, it quickly caught on as a way of letting off a bit of steam between postgrads to relieve the pain of knocking out (😭) a 50,000 word research paper. But after spending an enjoyable and productive afternoon media training scientists at the University of Birmingham (including a PhD student about to start writing up her thesis), it struck me that this harmless bit of fun is a brilliant way of helping prepare all academics for media interviews whether they’re talking about their actual theses or some other research.

Why? Because turning your thesis into a Tweet (even if you don’t publish it) can help you synthesise what your research is about from a layperson’s perspective and become a better communicator to external audiences as a result. After all, #sciencecommunication is vitally important but that’s another hashtag! Back to #tweetyourthesis …

It’s a highly reductive process. Turning 50,000 words or more into 280 characters or fewer is a challenge. But doing media is a challenge. Not least because it too is a highly reductive process with that 20 minute interview (at 3 words per second approximately 3,600 words) being edited down to a 20 second soundbite (of about 60 words). So better get used to it before the interview and, if you actually #tweetyourthesis , crowdsource advice from others who’ve been there, done that, got the Today programme tee shirt (it has a picture of John Humphries on the front and a Rottweiler on the back).

Here at ACM Training I use a planning matrix to help academics (and others for that matter) prepare for interviews. It sounds rather lofty and students of a certain age are often disappointed when I don’t conjure Keanu Reeves from my training tool box. But when all is said and done it’s simply a piece of paper or screen divided into three columns. Column one is where you jot down the three most important features of your research – let’s call them key messages. These shouldn’t necessarily be what’s most interesting to you but what’s most interesting from the audience’s perspective. Column two is where you choose up to three facts or figures to evidence those messages. And column three is for the narrative or stories that provide illustration. Think of column one aiding brevity, column two understanding or rationality, column three the emotionally engaging stuff and all three together the clarity and relevance. I then ask my trainees to practice extemporising a series of 20-30″ soundbites from their matrices using the stopwatch or countdown timer on their smartphones to keep them honest.

I like playing #tweetyourthesis too, although, of course, I wouldn’t dream of actually Tweeting your thesis (and I haven’t started mine yet). So here’s my effort at taking the editor’s proverbial red pen to the academics I met earlier this week. You know who you are. And, if I’ve done a half decent job, your colleagues should recognise you from what I’ve written. Feel free to copy, paste and Tweet what follows from your own social media accounts – using the #tweetyourthesis hashtag, naturally. Or, better still, come up with your own version and Tweet that instead.

A quantum clock so accurate if you set it to midnight at Big Bang it’d only be a second out nearly 14 billion years later. (That’s today). One that potentially could make navigation systems more accurate especially in remote areas hidden from the gaze of satellites. [266 characters]

Birmingham University quantum physicist

A contact lens-size sticking plaster with tiny grooves on its surface that encourages collagen (think human scaffolding) to heal without scarring, could save the sight of million and reduce the physiological and psychological impact of other scars. [248 characters]

Birmingham University biochemical engineer

Atoms harnessed to measure tiny changes in gravity to help us “see” below the surface. Like Newton’s apple but smaller and colder. Research that could be applied to roadworks and save us hours sitting in avoidable traffic jams and £ millions in lost productivity. [263 characters]

Birmingham University metrologist

It’s worth noting the #tweetyourthesis hashtag started when Tweets were limited to 140 characters. Now you’ve got 280. Easy innit?

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Schrödinger’s drone – three crisis comms lessons from the Gatwick closure

Approx. reading time: 2 minutes

Detective Chief Superintendent Jason Tingley probably didn’t have the best of breaks. He’s the Sussex police officer who admitted in an interview just before Christmas that there may not have been a drone at all – despite the numerous reported sightings that brought Gatwick Airport to a standstill over two days, disrupted 1,000 flights and affected 140,000 passengers.

Following a hastily arranged conference call with Government ministers, Tingley’s remark was explained away as “poor communications.” His press office issued a clarification. And then his boss, Sussex Chief Constable Giles York, appeared to contradict him, stating on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I am absolutely certain a drone was flying throughout the period the airport was closed.”

Giles went on to say that his officer “was trying to describe an investigative approach, that asks ‘how can we prove the presence of the drone in the first place?’” But he conceded Tingley’s remark had “amplified the chaos” surrounding the incident.

So what can be learned from the curious incident of the drone which, not unlike Schrödinger’s Cat, appears simultaneously to have been both present and not present? Here’s my analysis of the original exchange on BBC News and three lessons for all of us involved in media, PR and communications. Once you’ve had a look a what I have to say please subscribe to our blog and the ACM Training YouTube channel (if you haven’t already).

So what should the Detective Chief Super have said? I’ll be making a suggestion or two in the next post.


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Adversarial or conversational – why media training should cover both styles of interview (and everything in between)

Approx. reading time: 2 minutesFor years now the aspiration for most media trainees from the very top levels of industry, commerce and, especially, politics has been to be prepared for a haranguing by Humphrys (John, long-standing rottweiler-in-chief of BBC Radio Four’s flagship Today programme). And for years media trainers have dutifully helped them meet that aspiration. It’s been the default position on both sides of the training room. But with Humphrys’ kennel mate Paxman no longer baring his teeth on Newsnight, a new, less adversarial kind of journalism has been taking its place. This more conversational approach might, on the face of it, be less challenging for interviewees. Yet it presents them with different kinds of challenges. Ones which require less obvious and softer presentational skills than before. So media trainers must adapt their approach too.

I was reminded of this when given the brief to train the chief executive and senior management team at a non-departmental government body. The media manager told me that, like many people at their level, they’d been media trained earlier in their careers. But not recently and certainly not in a way that prepared them for the kinds of interviews they were increasingly being asked to give. Interviews where the expectation from the media was that the interviewees would be more reflective, less inclined to simply deliver their key messages irrespective of the questions (slippery style as I call it) and more entertaining (whatever that means) to boot. They’d clearly failed to meet this expectation, the media manager went on, because a recent interview hadn’t been used. Spiked, as us journalists with a print background like to say. All of which, he concluded, was a pity because they had some really important points to make.

In essence, the problem here is one of perception. One person’s shiny key messages are another person’s ditchwater. A safe pair of hands from an organisational perspective can be terminally dull from a media perspective.

Let me put it this way: if, by comparison to other contributors, your key messages are the least interesting (to readers, viewers and listeners) then in order to survive the edit and, in future, be asked back, your contribution has to be the most engaging.

Now, of course, I’d be the first to admit this is a gross oversimplification. And I’m not suggesting that if what you’ve got to say is dull then you’d best deliver it from a unicycle while dressed as a clown and juggling three chainsaws. What I am saying, however, is that you have to work even harder to frame your key messages in the most appealing way possible and deliver them with all the presentational charm you can muster. It’s a tall order. But one that at ACM Training we can help you with!


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How to stay in control of media interviews

Approx. reading time: 1 minuteAnswering a journalist’s question is all very well when it’s a helpful question. But if it’s unhelpful, unanswerable or unwelcome, responding is often better than actually answering – providing you don’t sound evasive, ignorant or both. So in this short talk our lead media trainer, Richard Uridge, show you how to switch your interviews from a question and answer template to a question and response approach.


This podcast episode is just one of a series of audio, video and written “how to” guides that form part of ACM Training’s Five Minute Masterclass series.