How to be a science presenter – BBC Science at Cheltenham Science Festival #scicomm jobs

This is a write up of an event I attended yesterday which I thought might be of interest to readers of the SciCommJobs blog. I wasn’t planning to attend the event or write it up, so it’s a bit all over the place (oops). I quite like the idea of ‘showcasing’ a science communication field so there might be more of this sort of thing. I shall have to interview myself about charity science communication – I hope I don’t ask any tough questions 😉


EDIT: Fran Bate (the lady who came and told us about the event has commented below and so I’ve corrected the name errors, the people on the panel were:
  • Aidan Laverty (Horizon Editor)
  • Dermot Caulfield (Bang Goes the Theory Editor)
  • Kate Bartlett (Head of Development)
  • Kate Vines (BBC Three Development).
Lou Woodley of Nature Network also got in touch to tell me about an interview with presenter Greg Foot, who features in the event below.

Another edit: Alom Shah tweeted about a book that people interested in becoming a TV presenter might like to read.

We (me plus two friends) were in the Times’ cafe at the Cheltenham Science Festival on Saturday afternoon with an hour to kill before the next event when someone from BBC Science popped in to tell us that, in five minutes, there’d be a talk in the BBC tent about being a science presenter. Although none of the three of us has any plans in that direction we thought it would be interesting – and it was. I was glad the person had come and told us as I’d no idea that it was happening (didn’t seem to be in the printed festival programme though listed online) and it also kept us safely undercover while a rain and lightning storm raged for about half an hour during the event.

About halfway through the talk I began to wish I’d made some notes, and so jotted down a few retrospective thoughts. It also occurred to me that this might have made a rather good post for this blog (as plenty of people do want to be science presenters) so what I’m hoping is that some others who attended will fill in the gaps and add their own thoughts. Not that I think this post is ever going to be a definitive guide to being a science presenter of course!

I’m afraid I didn’t catch everyone’s full name, but first names include Declan (Dermot Caulfield) from BBC1 who is editor for Bang Goes the Theory, Aiden (Laverty?) (Aidan Laverty) who’s from BBC2’s Horizon and Kate from BBC3.

Here’s how it was billed in the online programme:

So You Want to be a Science Presenter?
1 – 2pm
Have you got what it takes to be a BBC science presenter? Could you be the next face of BBC Science? Come and find out as a panel from BBC Science production discuss what it takes to present science programmes, what they are looking for and the route to becoming a presenter.

Here’s the fleshed out version of what I wrote down, and it will clearly be a bit patchy and out of its running order so forgive 🙂 From a show of hands about a third of the audience wanted to be a science presenter, presumably the rest were their parents 😉

Each of the three BBC science editors spoke about what they were looking for in a science presenters and there were commonalities (someone passionate) as well as differences (the different channels have different demographics, and some programmes need a single presenter, others need a ‘gang’).

Some clips were shown of various programmes and the audience were asked to shout out terms that they felt described the good presenters – passionate, able to explain clearly, unembarrassed, can tell a story, knowledgeable – that sort of thing. Also, people who are able to ask the question that the audience is asking (know your audience) – I suppose that’s also part of being unembarrassed as you might have to ask the ‘dumb questions’. Then each of the speakers talked about their own experiences in looking for and finding presenters.

In looking for the four presenters for Bang Goes the Theory, Declan (Dermot Caulfield) scoured universities and YouTube videos for possible candidates. In the end he found around 20 people whom he took off to a day of my own personal hell – the team building exercise. Rather than stomping off and refusing to participate (as I’d have done – clearly I’d be no good at this) everyone joined in and  built teams. From this, a team of four emerged who gelled well together – some of the candidates were very strong individually but were less comfortable with ‘sharing’. For the programme they were putting together (Bang) they wanted people who’d be able to come forward when needed, but also sometimes to draw back.

I thought the YouTube bit was interesting. There’s been quite a lot of discussion lately in the science communication world about people working for free in order to get a job. The issue of unpaid interns generated a lot of discussion on the psci-com mailing list recently and a lovely commencement speech given by Robert Krulwich (from Radiolab) which was posted on Ed Yong’s blog included a section on people making things happen for themselves. This included people writing (unpaid) blogs and developing paid work from that. There’s an element of that here – but it helps gain exposure and have a body of work to demonstrate your skills. One of the speakers suggested that people get out to Hyde Park which made me smile (we’re in Cheltenham not London) but it’s a fair point – get out to the park and get a friend to film you and bung it on YouTube. It doesn’t cost much.

Apart from YouTube make sure you have a look at the rather excellent science films hosted at Scicast 

Everyone agreed that passion was essential and that if you want to be on television you need to have a reason to want to be there. What’s the story that you’re compelled to tell? This does resonate with me a bit as I had a side-conversation with someone on Twitter the other day about blogging – it’s nice that people sometimes read what I write but I’d do this even if they didn’t as I feel compelled to record ideas in this way. There’s the idea that your ideal presenter would carry on doing whatever they’re doing when you switch the cameras off. 

You’ll need persistence because quite a few people will say ‘no’ to you when you’re trying to break in – you can’t really afford to be cowed by people disagreeing with you. 

Greg Foot (who was in the audience) was used as an example of someone who had obvious star quality. As he had an age
nt (as well as a showreel and a podcast) there was a brief discussion about whether or not you need an agent. Seemingly not but it can be a bit shorthand-ish for quality – if an agent sees ‘something’ in you that they can monetise and they’ll take you on, then this ‘filters’ you a bit. Their confidence in your ability to generate money for them can act make you seem “pre-approved”. 

However it can take a long time to get to be on the television, few arrive fully formed. People often start out as a contributor to another programme. 

Good presenters share their knowledge while weaving a narrative (story is everything) and also have a ‘strong brand’ or the X factor. There was also some discussion about likeability – Aiden (Aidan Laverty) specifically mentioned they’re not looking for blandness and appeal to everyone, it’s OK to have a marmite-ish presenter that some love and some hate.

It’s probably a bonus but not essential to have a strong academic background, what’s crucial is credibility. You don’t have to be a practising scientist but being able to communicate well is key – I can’t remember which of the presenters cited the Imperial science communication course as being something that seems to produce rather a lot of good #scicomm folk. I remember when I was looking at science communication courses (I did the Birkbeck diploma) I decided against the Imperial one as I felt that there was more performing / TV stuff – which doesn’t really interest me, but the academic stuff is strong too and @alicebell is one of the teachers.

An audience member asked how much writing the presenters get to do – this varies both by presenter availability (there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing of scripts), their own experience and writing ability and the nature of the programme. They will certainly have some editorial involvement and the actual words used might be their own but the director and producer will usually shape the script.

“What about the fact that most of the clips shown had young and good-looking presenters?” was another question. The speakers were firm that sience programmes are open to all presenters, although BBC3 prefers that its presenters are nearer the 16-34 demographic. But they were all clear that they want to retain the talen they’ve found and keep working with them, after all David Attenborough started off as a young BBC presenter and has had a distinguished career with them.

Another question was on the lack of engineering and manufacturing in television. Declan (Dermot Caulfield) mentioned that there were steps in place to get more engineering involved and he’s taken part in a buddy scheme in which people are paired with engineers – he’s been paired with someone from the Royal College of Engineers. Apparently there’s to be another series of “How to build”. 

So that’s what I took away from this, I expect I missed loads so comments from others who attended or who know more than me about becoming a BBC science presenter (almost anyone) would be super welcome. Also if I’ve mis-attributed a quote or got something wrong – do pipe up.

I don’t think there was much discussion about journalism / science journalism – was there? I expect that could be another route in, good training for getting to the story quickly.

I would still rather gouge out my own eyeballs than appear on television as a presenter myself, but now I’ve been left with the lingering wonder – would I be any good at it 😉
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6 Responses to How to be a science presenter – BBC Science at Cheltenham Science Festival #scicomm jobs

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, as someone considering this line of work your notes have been really encouraging :)R

  2. Anonymous says:

    Well technically nothing as I’d never want to talk about anything through the medium of television, but I could bore anyone to tears about lipid chemistry 😀

  3. c_gibson85 says:

    I was there too, I think you got almost all of the main points! I had never considered blogging about science before tbh so it was interesting to hear how people at the beeb look at things like that. One thing I did notice and I wondered if it was just me but was Greg hit by the paint ball while he was still at the top of the tree or did I imagine that?The youtube clip gave me an idea for a series of short youtube clips for revision for year 11s (something my head of department liked so video camera at the ready…). It was interesting to think about what story would you like to show. Personally I’d love to show how some animals have similar problem solving behaviour like we do – crows, chimps etc and the research in these areas, especially linked to a human evolution angle – and underrated inventions or inventions we take for granted now. The last one is based on conversations with my year 10 btec group who don’t seem to be able to imagine a world without instant communication. What would you be interested in talking about?Chris

  4. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Fran, and sorry to everyone for forgetting almost everyone’s surname, or mis-spelling their first name. Really glad you promoted the talk as it was great fun 🙂

  5. Fran Bate says:

    Hey Scicomm jobs,Good work writing this up. Just a few errors that I thought I could help with. I (Frans_Facts) was the ‘someone from BBC Science’- and the panel consisted of Aidan Laverty (Horizon Editor), Dermot Caulfield (Bang Goes the Theory Editor), Kate Bartlett (Head of Development) and Kate Vines (BBC Three Development). Also, as part of the team of 3, who organised the tent in just 5 weeks- I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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