SAN FRANCISCO, CA, DECEMBER 15, 2014 – The amazing thing about the annual fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the number of things — not to mention the number of people — one inadvertently encounters.

In this case, it was a concurrent meeting of the California School Boards Association in ballrooms that in past years had been explicitly used for AGU meetings.

Keep in mind that the focus of the CSBA meeting was decidedly not on climate change or earth sciences. Nor was climate the issue specifically addressed by this AGU attendee’s blundering into what turned out to be the wrong meeting. (The doorkeeper was patient and forgiving.)

The subject of this particular presentation — communicating with news media — was, however, very much on point for climate scientists and climate communicators more broadly.

Keep your messages “brief and simple” and repeat them often, Suzanne Zagata-Merez advised her audience of a hundred or more. No jargon, avoid over-complicating the issues, and “say it simply,” she advised, suggesting that seven to 10 seconds might be a reasonable target for broadcast interviews. Speak as you would in talking with your kids or non-expert parents and relatives, she advised, but use supporting authoritative statistics and data whenever possible. “Third-party validation” is especially helpful so the interviewee can point to others supporting their perspective.

Simple, Repeated … and the Truth

Zagata-Merez encouraged those doing media interviews to narrow their priorities to two, at most three, key talking points. “Tell the truth,” she emphasized, and if you don’t know the answer to a question, “I don’t know” is a perfectly legitimate response. If you can’t comment in response to a specific question…don’t, but take the time to explain why you can’t comment.

Be emphatic, but stay “on the record” and expect all said or uttered to be fair game for disclosure. By all means, avoid responding to hypothetical questions, she said, and never, ever speak for others or for other groups.

Beware the “incorrect premise” behind a question, she cautioned, and “enjoy silence” — that gap between a question and your response to it that interviewees might best use to gather their thoughts.

Building Bridges Rather than Rebutting

Zagata-Merez encouraged interviewees to “build bridges.” Rather than refuting or attempting to rebut an expressed premise of a question, she said phrases like “Let’s take a look at that issue…,” “That’s not the data and experiences we’ve seen,” or “Let me put that in perspective” can be helpful. Even single-word phrases like “Actually” or “However” can be an effective bridge, she said.

For those doing TV interviews, Zagata-Merez repeated the usual precautions: male interviewees need to be mindful of their neckties and how they are tied, how they are centered, etc. Women interviewees, she suggested, might do best to wear slacks rather than skirts, and all those doing telephone interviews might consider standing up rather than necessarily sitting. Body language counts even in the absence of a camera, she said. She also encouraged blues, tans, blacks, and some grays as the colors of choice for TV interviews…and warned against patterned clothing.

One need not, of course, stumble into a concurrent organization’s meeting to find gems of interest during the myriad AGU sessions, lectures, posters…and hallway chats. James Brey of the American Meteorological Society explained how the organization’s “Our Changing Climate” e-textbooks for students and faculty can help people better understand climate change in the context of meteorology. He said each chapter in the e-textbooks ends with a “Big Ideas” conclusion capturing key highlights from that chapter. He also pointed to AMS’s ongoing climate science education activities with minority serving institutions, an effort supported by federal funding.

Representatives of North Carolina State University’s Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Science, in Raleigh, offered insights into a new climate science communications graduate course the school will begin offering this coming year. More on that in this space in coming posts.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...