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NPR Host Teaches Scientists How To Better Communicate Their Findings

By Michael V. Rothberg, Crimson Staff Writer

Scientists can express their complex works in understandable and interesting terms using the same techniques that are used on public radio, NPR correspondent David S. Kestenbaum said in a lecture Friday night.

Kestenbaum, currently a co-host of NPR’s “Planet Money” project, was the keynote speaker for ComSciCon-local, a two-day workshop designed to improve scholarly communication skills. He earned his Ph.D. in particle physics at Harvard in 1996 before becoming a science reporter for NPR, a transition that he said he made only after his girlfriend broke up with him for a writer.

Following an introduction from Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching Director Erin Driver-Linn and Kestenbaum’s former mentor and current Physics Department chair Melissa Franklin, Kestenbaum took the stage to explain “How to Tell a Story in Four Minutes” to an audience of more than 300 scientists and students gathered in the Geological Lecture Hall.

Kestenbaum kicked off his presentation by playing a clip in which Nobel Prize-winning physicist Anthony J. Legget attempted to explain his contribution to the scientific community.

“Well, the citation is for the theoretical work I did in connection with the new phases of liquid helium-3, which were discovered experimentally in the early seventies,” Legget said in a slightly muted British accent.

After Legget began listing the names of past scientists who contributed to his discovery, Kestenbaum cut off the clip, lauding the Nobel Prize winner for his humility but noting that such lengthy answers made his job as Legget’s interviewer more difficult.

Drawing on his experience as both an academic and radio correspondent, Kestenbaum then offered suggestions on how to improve the communication of scientific researchm.

“Ask yourself, ‘Do I really have a story?’” he said. “If the answer to this is not yes, then do not go forward.”

When a storyteller, whether a scientist or a radio correspondent, finds a compelling story, he said, he or she must figure out how to structure it. One tactic that Kestenbaum and his “Planet Money” co-workers occasionally practice is what he called “participatory investigative journalism,” in which a reporter becomes a part of the story he or she is telling.

For example, in March 2010, when reporting on the aftermath of the housing crisis, Kestenbaum said he and his co-reporter Chana Joffe-Walt spent a thousand dollars out of pocket to buy a “toxic asset,” a collection of home mortgages, mostly from people who were given loans they were ultimately unable to pay back.

They tracked the status of this asset on the show as mortgage payments backing it began to come in to illustrate the complicated trajectory of troubled mortgages across the country. When the toxic asset ultimately “died,” they had only made back slightly under half their investment.

“The original government plan was to buy all these [toxic assets] up,” Kestenbaum said. “[Our experience] explains why that was such a dicey proposition.”

In the talk, which lasted a little under an hour, he discussed other methods for structuring and editing stories. Kestenbaum urged the audience to resist the temptation to avoid silence when interviewing guests, a technique he said he picked up for live radio.

“Silence,” he said, followed by a brief dramatic pause. “Silence is really good. When there’s silence, it means someone’s thinking. It means something exciting or interesting is happening. Don’t fill silence.”

—Staff writer Michael V. Rothberg can be reached at mrothberg@college.harvard.edu.

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