Public Outreach: Results and Discussion

Three videos and a month after I threw down a gauntlet, in front of my fellow science bloggers, let’s look at how it went.

The first video is the most watched. It’s approaching 300 views, which is about 299 more than I expected it to get but still pretty close to obscurity. Based on the data YouTube provides in my account dashboard, most of the viewers seem to have reached it through this blog, my Twitter feed, or TWiV. The other two videos have over 100 views each, mostly coming from the same referrers. Lots of people have told me they like these videos. All of those people either live here inside the science ghetto or visit it regularly.

Turbid Plaque Studios. I’ve failed to reach the audience I was aiming for, at least so far. That doesn’t surprise or upset me. Internet media success is a lottery system, where a few entries win big and most lose. Internet success or failure is not a measure of value, utility, or technical quality. If you’ve paid any attention to the sorts of things that “go viral” online, you understand that.

As I said in the original post, my other goal was to spur others to try to explain science to a broader audience as well. That challenge still stands. You don’t have to copy what I did. The only rules are that you should try to explain how science works, and do it at a level that’s understandable by people who don’t read science blogs or follow science news. A comic strip, a catchy song, or even a poem might work.

Consider this: if you ask an American of my generation to describe our legislative process, there’s a good chance we’ll sing you a song. Ask a typical American how science works, though, and odds are you’ll get a fumbling ramble that tapers off into an excuse. But the fundamental process of science is more important and actually easier to understand than the workings of Congress.

Sure, specific scientific findings can get ridiculously complex, but that’s not what people really need to appreciate. I couldn’t care less whether the average person can explain how Sanger DNA sequencing works, but being able to articulate what’s special about science and how to evaluate factual claims is a basic life skill. Our educational institutions have apparently failed to teach it adequately, so let’s pick up the slack.

Even if the online media system is a lottery, tickets are cheap and someone will eventually win. As my videos illustrate, you don’t need fancy equipment, a big payroll, or even any special talent to play this game. If you have any of those things you should certainly deploy them, but they’re not required. All you really need is a bit of persistence and the ability to suppress your fear of failure. Any science blogger is automatically qualified.

If you pick video as your medium, put a little effort into learning how to shoot it. I’m no expert, but given the feedback I’ve gotten I gather my videos aren’t completely awful, so here’s my advice for other aspiring science filmmakers.

Start by reading this book. It teaches exactly what the title says, quickly and effectively.

Next, write a script. If it’s longer than 1,000 words, trim it or plan to break it into parts. You’ll want to speak at 100-150 words per minute, perhaps with brief gusts to 200, and any video over 10 minutes (1,000 words at 100 wpm) is pretty much doomed online. Edit the script. Edit the script again. Obsess over the script. Don’t worry too much about how you’re going to illustrate the concepts at this point, just try to explain them as succinctly as possible. Imagine someone will be listening to the audio by itself, and focus on making the narration the best it can be.

Now plan the shots. The simplest shooting plan is to memorize the script or use a teleprompter, and speak directly into the camera in a single take. That’s been the standard format for the evening news for half a century, and you probably have all of the necessary equipment already. The most important thing about a monologue video is to establish a connection with the audience. Look at the lens, not your notes, and dress like someone you’d want to talk to at a party. And please, please pay attention to the lighting. A cheap hardware store clip-on reflector lamp with a high-wattage “warm white” CFL bulb, mounted about 45 degrees above and to one side of your face, will improve your image quality enormously. If the direct light seems too harsh, try aiming the lamp at a white ceiling or wall to bounce it in a more diffuse pattern. If you use a visual aid or a whiteboard, be sure it’s easy to see and properly focused.

My strategy was obviously a bit different, but it still wasn’t very complicated. My total expenditure for the three videos was less than $100. I already had the tripod, webcam and laptop, so I just picked up iStopMotion, a reasonably priced and very capable animation program. The “infinity” background is a roll of sketch paper taped to the wall, the lighting is a pair of clip-ons I found kicking around the back of the basement, and most of the cast and props arrived in a Lego minifigure package. Additional players appeared courtesy of my daughter.

Whatever approach you use, learn from my error and have someone you trust take a look at your work before you put it online. That’s especially important if you’re working in a medium other than your usual one; I’m now keenly aware that what works fine in writing may set the wrong tone in a video.

So there go all of your excuses. Use what you have and give it your best shot. When you’re done – whatever medium you’ve used – please drop me a line through this site or on Twitter, and I’ll do what I can to help promote your work. The hashtag for this little challenge is #thinklikeascientist.