Dear blogger, your headline may need a superhero

Batman delivering a punchline
Batman delivering a punchline (Photo credit: renophaston)

A room full of science bloggers fell silent after Liz Neeley (compassblogs.org) asked how much effort they invested in headlines for their blog posts.

Apparently most of the public in the room, including myself, doesn’t fuss a lot about headlines. Seasoned blogger Brendan DeMelle (DeSmogBlog.com) told us that this inattention may cost your post a lot of its potential audience. Most viewers/readers will only read your headline. You have a few seconds of their attention, then they are gone, adios, sayonara, arrivederci. What you wanted to communicate is lost in the past. Can you say what you need to say in those 3 seconds? Can you hook your readers so they want to read more? To write great headlines is a difficult art to master, even with the help of A/B testing.

But, how can a superhero help you with a great headline? That is part of a story that started the day before Liz asked such a good question to the science bloggers audience:

It begins with a very cool post at the New York Times Bits blog. I don’t want to give away too many details. There is a video with scientist explaining their software and image analysis technique, and showing diverse examples of uses for it. One example shows video of a sleeping newborn. With the software you can make visible the small movement in the surface of the baby’s face due to blood circulation, and measure his pulse — without touching him. Another example shows that no special camera is needed; they take a clip from a movie with a famous actor sleeping on bed, just as shown in theaters, then the software shows his blood circulating up and down.

What was the headline of author Erik Olsen’s blog?

“Scientists Uncover Invisible Motion in Video”

Not a bad headline, but I read about the  Bits blog from another blog first, and that blog had added more information to the headline. Aatish Bhatia (Empirical Zeal) added a little more explanation when sharing the link to Eric Olsen’s piece:

“A pretty amazing algorithm magnifies imperceptible motions, allowing you to see the invisible”

Empirical zeal

I was so excited about the link shared by Aatish that I decided to share it too. Not to be outdone, I wrote my headline with even more words (a bad initial decision that ended with a bad headline).

“Image processing at its best. Tiny movements are exaggerated: you may measure the pulse of a person using a camera”

Nevertheless, I believed the headlines where interesting enough and the research was so fascinating that people would feel really compelled to read more. Click for the awesome video and hopefully stay and learn a little about image processing. I did not find how wrong I was until later, when I opened my twitter feed and I saw this post from Ed Yong:

edtwitter

Ed Yong grabbed the amazing headline crafted by Robert Krulwich on his blog Krulwich wonders “MIT Invents A Machine That Can Look At Batman’s Face And See His Heart Beating” then added a WOWOWOW! at the beginning (meaning look guys this is awesome) and gave you the exact part of the video where you can look at Batman’s face and see his heart beating. The picture is already showing you batman… If you can resist to click on the link it can only be that you have no pulse.

Lesson learned. Next time I write a headline I will remember Liz Neely’s question, and the treatment that Robert Krulwich and Ed Yong gave to this piece. In my opinion Batman kicked other headline’s but, and I will try to write more Batman headlines in the future.

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Scientific writers come in Trojan horses

A bunch of friends inside the Trojan Horse. I am the guy in the bottom center. © Ivan F. Gonzalez

My last post was about the “Science Salsa Method” to become a better science communicator. In that post I mentioned an awesome Commencement Speech by Robert Krulwich.

This speech in front of the Berkeley Journalism School’s Class of 2011 takes half an hour to watch. My friend Jessica Carrilli of “Jessica’s Blog of Bad Advice” made me realize that not everybody has the time to watch it.

If you don’t watch it, you may not know what “looking for friends in low places” means. Let me explain what I meant:

Krulwich paints this picture for the newcomers in journalism:  You are outside the fortified city of Troy and want to get in – to get a job as a journalist in a company. Traditionally you wait on the sandy beaches and send cards to the people inside the fortress until somebody  trows you a key from the high towers and you are allowed to enter.

In the golden age, If you could get yourself into the New york Times or WSJ, and you gave your life for the company, the company would take care of you. That is no longer the case. Krulwich reminded us that “A job at NBC, ESPN, New York Times, NPR, may look safe today – but things change. They always change. And companies won’t protect you from that change. They can’t. And these days, they don’t even try.

As an alternative he proposes this: “Suppose, instead of waiting for a job offer from the New Yorker, suppose next month, you go to your living room, sit down, and just do what you love to do. If you write, you write. You write a blog. If you shoot, find a friend, someone you know and like, and the two of you write a script. You make something.”

The example he used was science journalism. Some people started with a blog, and now “They are becoming not just science writers with jobs, they are becoming THE science writers, the ones people read, and look to… they’re going places. And they’re doing it on their own terms! In their own voice, they’re free to be themselves AND they’re paid for it!”

Krulwich advice continues: “So for this age, for your time, I want you to just think about this: Think about NOT waiting your turn.

Instead, think about getting together with friends that you admire, or envy.  Think about entrepeneuring. Think about NOT waiting for a company to call you up. Think about not giving your heart to a bunch of adults you don’t know. Think about horizontal loyalty. Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it.

And when it comes to security, to protection, your friends may take better care of you than CBS took care of Charles Kuralt in the end. In every career, your job is to make and tell stories, of course. You will build a body of work, but you will also build a body of affection, with the people you’ve helped who’ve helped you back.

And maybe that’s your way into Troy.

There you are, on the beach, with the other newbies, looking up. Maybe somebody inside will throw you a key and let you in… But more likely, most of you will have to find your own Trojan Horse.

And maybe, for your generation, the Trojan Horse is what you’ve got, your talent, backed by a legion of friends. Not friends in high places. This is the era of Friends in Low Places. The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.

The bold font is mine, that is what I meant to say when I said: I am looking for friends in low places!

If you want to read the transcript of Robert Krulwich’s speech, please visit this blog post by Ed Yong: “There are some people who don’t wait.” Robert Krulwich on the future of journalism | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine.

Science communication: if you need to start somewhere, start here!

todolist

How to become an excellent science communicator?

In science communication nothing beats the dual-package: carefully structured message combined to the ability to hear and read the audience. I am good at engaging the audience but I really want to become the kind of person that can do both engagement and structure effectively; and to keep it fresh, so we can have fun.

I tried the easy way; I searched online for a 5-minute-a-day method for science communication. Results guaranteed after the first two weeks, or your money back. I couldn’t find it.

Plan B is to find my own method for adding formal structure to my own voice. The first step on my method is to learn the craft of scientific writing. There are several things I am doing to make progress in that area: I am using a twitter account to learn to write a compelling message in 140 characters or less; I am taking Writing in The Sciences, an excellent Coursera class taught by Kristin Sainani at Stanford; and I am writing every day, some of those writings you will see in this blog in the future.  I am mainly doing what I do best: learning by observing and by reading other people.

How have other people started as science writers?

I think the best start to answer the question is reading Ed Yong’s blog. Ed is a British science writer with a blog called “Not Exactly Rocket Science” . He is very active in the Science Online community  and he compiled this great list of scientific writers –145 of them– telling you their personal path to get there; Ed said about this group of people, ”You can already see that they’re a varied bunch. Some stumbled into it by accident. Some came from traditional journalistic backgrounds. Others were bitten by a radioactive Carl Sagan. The more the stories accumulate, the better this diversity reveals itself.” The blog post is here: the origin of scientific writers.

I haven’t read all the names in the post. I prefer to read a new one when I have five minutes free, check their web page, maybe start following their blog or twitter account. You may want to do something similar to what I do; find stories that touch you personally, read the author’s work, and maybe contact them.

What path is Science Salsa following?

To properly answer that question, I think you may watch this half-an-hour video about journalism and starting your career by writing your own blog: Friends in low places – Video of Robert Krulwich. I really like his work on the radio, and RadioLab is one of my favorite shows. I think Krulwich makes a very good point in the video about the need to start gaining professional experience blogging from your own living room.

If you really want to know, the answer is simple: I am happily looking for friends in low places.

For more about the video: If you don’t have half an hour to watch it, I wrote another post with relevant  parts of the transcript  here.