Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Catching attention with a memorable quote

15 Jan 2019
Writing and preparing good quotes requires thought and preparation, but not as much time as you’d think. This month we look at the key to your quote being used.

By Ruth Francis

Last week, a reporter contacted me wanting a quote from an expert on new research in a top journal. As I approached scientists in the relevant fields, I wanted to make sure that if they spent time reading and digesting the paper, their quote would be used. 

The journalist said she was looking for no more than a paragraph saying it’s great, or it’s early days, amazing or flawed; essentially something short to put the one study in the larger context of the field. The researchers wanted to provide more analysis. How can we make sure both are happy with the end result?

First of all, ensure a clear understanding that the request is for a short quote giving a broad sense of the research. The audience is general, not made up of scientific peers who expect detail. It is not worth spending ages putting together a long and considered argument. In my example, the reporter wanted a general sense, a feeling for the new work. 

We cannot change what the reporter is looking for in a quote and no amount of time spent on a detailed, analytical quote will convince them that we know better about what their audience -- and their news editor -- wants. 

Many of us also include quotes in press releases. Again, this is something that is easy to get right but too often we get it wrong. A similar principle applies -- keep it brief. Don’t give a long quote in a press release. The quote does not need to contain all the detail because that is in the body of the document. The quote should be concise, catchy and communicate the key point of the research. All the better if you can convey passion or excitement too. 

In either instance, the quote needs to stand alone as a complete paragraph. It should be self-contained and tell the reader something important about the research described in the release or news story. 

Here are my top tips for writing a good quote:

1. Grab attention -- Be funny if appropriate, but if not, use colourful language and explain why this is something to be excited about or interested in. 

2. Be clear and concise -- Write out your key message, think about how you want to say it and edit out any unnecessary words. This is particularly true given that many will read on a mobile device and short sentences and quotes are easier to read. 

3. Show some personality – This is a personal choice, but rather than simply stating some facts, give the reader an idea of what you think, why this is fascinating or quirky or unexpected. 

Here are a couple of excellent examples I spotted recently:

“If anything good comes out of this extinction, it will be the recognition that we have a lot to lose, and we don’t have a lot of time.” -- David R. Sischo, director of Hawaii’s Snail Extinction Prevention Program
From: "George the Snail, Believed to Be the Last of His Species, Dies at 14 in Hawaii" - New York Times, Jan. 10, 2019

“If we get an image out of it, it will become one of the iconic images of science,” he said. “It’s an extraordinarily ambitious project.” -- Prof. Peter Galison, Harvard University
From: "Scientists close to first sighting of black hole in the Milky Way" - The Guardian, Jan. 11, 2019

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years of experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.