I Need to Work on My Sound Bites

One of the questions asked of Neil deGrasse Tyson at the WSF thing last week was “When did you change from a mild-mannered astrophysicist to a rock-star scientist?” (or something close to that phrasing). In his answer, he said that after his first tv interview was edited down to a three-second shot of him wiggling his hips, he made a deliberate effort to practice giving sound bites– answering questions in 3-4 sentences with a good “hook” for the tv people to work with.

I thought of this when I stumbled across the following YouTube clips, which were shot by TV Ontario when I was at the Quantum to Cosmos festival last fall. They were recording questions from scientists at the festival tent downtown, then finding scientists to answer those questions on camera later. I fielded two, one on 2012:

the other on stars:

These are parts N and N+1 in the unofficial series “I’m No Neil deGrasse Tyson.” Particularly the second, which is horribly repetitive. In my defense, though, I know next to nothing about either of these topics (pretty much everything I know is in those answers), so these aren’t too bad for spur-of-the-moment improvisation. I need to work on looking straight at the camera, though– damn, I look shifty.

If you look at the background, you can see that these were being shot in the glass entryway of the Perimeter Institute building, in the small space between the inner and outer doors of the atrium. People were going in and out behind me, which was a little weird.

The other quirky thing about this project is that the people answering the questions didn’t get to see the video of the questions we were answering. which leads to occasional awkwardness like one clip where Sean Carroll answers a completely different question than what was asked. The producer doing the filming only gave a really vague description of the questions, and that particular question was so odd that I’m not surprised at the result.

This is one of the things that I think of whenever some variant of the media training for scientists idea bubbles to the surface in blogdom and is pooh-poohed by lots of people who think scientists can do just fine communicating to the public by themselves, if the media just get out of the way. This stuff is really hard to do well. If you grab a random scientist out of the lab, and plop them in front of a camera to answer questions, they’re not going to look very good– it takes a lot of practice to give good and interesting answers to general questions and not look dumb in the process.

Poking around a bit through the other videos, I didn’t do all that badly when compared to others. But you can see a real difference between somebody with a lot of practice doing this kind of thing– Lawrence Krauss, Sean Carroll– and people who only rarely get in front of a camera like me or Peter Shor.

2 thoughts on “I Need to Work on My Sound Bites

  1. he made a deliberate effort to practice giving sound bites– answering questions in 3-4 sentences with a good “hook” for the tv people to work with.

    Strangely, this sounds not unlike how I have to give answers to some members of corporate management.

  2. The great thing about public speaking/camera speaking is that for the majority of us who are not naturals, it can be learned. Looking at a camera lens instead of a human being can feel very unnatural and make an already uncomfortable situation worse.

    As your title suggest, its something that needs to be worked on. Practicing at home with a video camera, webcam, digital cam that shoots video can help. Don’t worry about video/sound quality, but instead on delivery. You don’t even have to post it. But use it for yourself as benchmarks for improvement. Sort of like taking a photo of yourself before starting a weight loss program.

    In “Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist”, Neil tells the same wiggling hips story. In conclusion he said, “Whether or not you can ever become great at something, you can always become better at it. And don’t say, ‘oh I’ll never be good’…you can become better and one day you’ll wake up and find out how good you actually became.”

    I think you’ve taken an important first step tho. Looking at your own self in a critical manor. Now its just a matter of practicing to become better. Best wishes!

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