Guest piece by Georgia Mills, a producer of The Naked Scientists

At first, radio and podcasts might seem like a bad fit for science: a lot of science is visual. Without being able to show some of the stunning animals, planets and robots, you can lose a bit of the sparkle to a story. Diagrams are also a mainstay of science communication. Used well, they bring understanding to even the trickiest concepts. Again, radio doesn’t have this luxury.

But it doesn’t need it. A lot of science is beautiful, but a lot of it (sorry, scientists) isn’t. Most labs are white, sterile replicas of each other, and when you’re dealing with the realms of quantum, the nanoscale or far distant exoplanets, there often isn’t anything to look at anyway. With radio, there’s no such thing as a dreary setting. Soundscapes allow you to transport people to exciting and impossible places, from the centre of a black hole to the bottom of the ocean. Sound effects and music, used creatively, can also become the auditory equivalent of a diagram and help a listener to get to grips with some of science’s more slippery concepts.

Radio is all about telling stories, and while science can seem like equations and test-tubes, it’s bursting at the seams with epic stories: of vanquishing deadly foes, of exploring the great unknown and of saving lives. Spielberg, eat your heart out.

Why is good science communication so important?

Fake news and the distrust of experts are clear and present dangers, so getting science across to people accurately and in an engaging way is crucial. Good science communication inspires curiosity about the world and buffers populations against misinformation.

And, as we keep hearing, we, as humans are having an unprecedented impact on our planet. Understanding the consequences of human activity on the Earth and the things that live here can help promote real world change, whether that’s reducing our own plastic use or persuading companies and governments to reduce their carbon emissions.

How do you go about choosing what to cover?

For a successful programme or podcast, you’re always trying to find a balance between what’s important and what’s exciting. The two elements often overlap, but don’t always: a story about penguins or dinosaurs might not be world-changing, but it can ignite the imagination, while the discovery of a new mechanism of neuron death could save lives and still be a much harder sell to casual listeners. Topics should be timely and relevant to the audience, and always be telling them something they won’t have heard before. And while stories about health often dominate the news due to how much impact they have, it’s always nice to cover a variety of stories from the different STEM disciplines. Even maths.

How do you communicate difficult topics?

There are two key challenges. The first is to make it understandable in the time you have available, and the second is to keep people interested.

You want to make the unfamiliar familiar. Find descriptions or metaphors that recall well-known imagery: the CRISPR-Cas9 tool is a pair of molecular scissors, white blood cells are immune foot soldiers and black holes are astronomical waste compactors. Pop-culture can be a powerful tool: films like Interstellar, Jurassic Park and The Martian can all be used to catch people’s attention and springboard you into the science of time dilation, genetic engineering or Matt Damon. It’s also good practice to avoid jargon and overly scientific terms at all costs, never say Solanum tuberosum when you can say potato, or excretion when you can say poo.

And to keep people’s interest, you need to weave a good yarn. Set up the stakes: will this save lives or change the world? Settle on the tone – is it serious or chatty and fun? What is the beginning, middle and end of the story, and who are the key players? To tell a good story you need a good story teller. You want an animated interviewee who is as excited about the science as you want the listener to be. I prefer to hear the science from the people who are doing it, but expert commentators from a similar area of science can provide useful backups when the researchers themselves are less media-practiced, while interspersed narration and careful sound design can provide clarification and spice up the story.

Georgia is a producer at The Naked Scientists, a regular programme on the BBC and one of the first podcasts to exist.

Their mission is to deliver scientific reporting and entertainment of the highest calibre and standard, which is evidenced in the fact that it’s now one of the world's most popular science shows, achieving over 50 million programme downloads in the last 5 years.

Find out more about The Naked Scientists here.