My team is one of the four recipients of the new round of funding by the ESRC-NIHR Dementia Research Initiative 2018. An amazing thing that the ESRC does is providing support to its funded researchers to undertake media training. Because in our team we understand the power of communication and we are committed to raise awareness and increase public education about dementia, we greatly appreciated this opportunity.
So, a few weeks ago, our project manager liaised with ESRC and Inside Edge to organise a one-day training course for some members of our team. We completed the course last week and I must say this was one of the most exciting and entertaining events I have attended in years. The facilitators managed to keep us totally plugged in during the entire day. It was a great learning and lots of fun … which it should not be surprising since the trainers of this course are Chris Jameson and Tony Prideaux, two senior BBC journalists with heaps of experience and also founders of Inside Edge Training, an agency devoted to providing media training to researcher and other professionals. They are funny and fresh and have a quick wit that sparks warm energy and good vibe around the room. They provided us with lots of practical advice, supported by role-playing, multimedia learning tools, and real practice. You really need to undertake the course to understand and register its content but, I will share three fundamental teachings that I took away that day:
- “You need a Top Line”. Your top line is your two secs elevator pitch. It is like a news heading. Something that you through around and triggers questions so people want to know more about it. It needs to be ready to go at any time. My top line is something like: “Online interventions can help you to live better with dementia. I am currently developing one that can help thousands of people around the world”. What do you think your top line looks like?
- “Give colour”. This is about storytelling, set the scene, giving specific examples that people can relate to and can help them land into your story. For example: “Imagine you go to see your doctor and you receive a diagnosis of a low prevalent form of dementia. That’s shocking! The next thing you will want to know is what’s going to happen to you and your family, what the symptoms of the disease are, … and where you can go to get support! When my tool becomes available, you will be able to come back home from the clinic that day, log into an online system and being immediately connected with a specialised professional. This person will put you at ease and will have responses for your burning questions. This person will also show you how to use a powerful online resource that will help you to manage your symptoms efficiently, deal with the barriers imposed by the disease in a positive way and connect with others who are in the same situation. You won’t be facing dementia alone. You will be supported and empowered”. Can you think of a specific, real-life example of how your research will be useful for people?
- “You have to be prepared”. You need to organize your thoughts before an interview and get a clear idea of the message you want to convey. This also involves self-regulation and control, so you do not slip into a bombardment of technical facts and academic-like speech that bores everyone to death. Making things simple takes practice and time, a pencil and a piece of paper, and practice out aloud before going on the air.
The way Chris and Tony help you understand this last point is by practicing. In your course with them you will have to prepare a summary of your research in a few minutes. And a top line. Then you will be interviewed by one of them. You will be recorded. You will listen to the record afterwards and will get feedback about areas of improvement. You will be interviewed again later (and recorded again). You may perform worse than the first time – or feel that you are performing worse- because you will get distracted thinking of the checklist of things you want to improve this time. I personally wanted to crawl under the table when I listened to my two recordings. Crawl and cover my head with my coat and stay there and stop speaking either English or Spanish, just stick to signing for the rest of my life. But this was just for a while. Because then I remembered something that might also help you if you also find this kind of experience daunting (and you break into fits of drama as I do). Remember:
- The BBC is the largest and most prestigious broadcaster in the world. You are extraordinarily lucky and privileged to get training directly from BBC journalist. Enjoy it. Learn. Be thankful. Feel grateful.
- This is not about you, your ego or your insecurities!! (so, the sooner you get over all that nonsense, the better). This is about disseminating your research. Because you are doing something amazing to help people living with dementia and you believe in what you do and your passion will inspire others. So, it is important that you learn how to speak to the media. Focus.
- It does not matter if you stutter a bit (or a lot) or do not find the perfect words or you do just OK (or bad): you are undertaking training and you will improve with practice and, most important, your goal is not to reach perfection, your goal is to be able to spread the word, educate others, raise awareness and hopefully making a positive impact. That is all it matters. Remember, you are in a mission to bring good to the world. That should be a force bigger than your ego and your insecurities.
The skills you will gain are the foundation of the art of effective and engaging communication and this training will serve you for a range of purposes. For example, I care a lot about effective communication also because I am a health activist. In particular, I seek to make an influence to see more dementia-friendly communities springing around me. I am currently trying to set up a network of Memory Cafes in my home region back in Spain. This involves holding meetings with the local neighbourhood associations and having just a few minutes each time to capture their attention, instil the greatest interest and convince them that supporting me to start a Cafe in their area is the most exciting and important mission ever. I have started using the learnings from the media course when doing this and I can already see how my message travels more clearly, more powerfully and pulls in more people than it used to do before.
I highly recommend this course to everyone. And while doing it, remember to focus on the fact that you are building a skill that is a tool to do good. Your research and your passion are supposed to be making a difference. Tell the world about it.
Dr Aida Suarez-Gonzalez is a Clinical Neuropsychologist and Research Associate at the Dementia Research Centre, UCL Institute of Neurology at Queen Square. With many years clinical experience working in Spain, Aida now investigating non-pharmacological interventions, services and assistive technologies to support people living well with dementia.