Friday, April 1, 2005

Understanding your audience

Last night Monica and I interviewed Judy Jackson, Fermilab's Public Relations director. Initially we met with her back in October or November, and at that time we wanted simply to get releases signed, to get her blessing on our project, and to follow the proper protocol so that the doors would be open to us. Immediately, however, we were taken with her and wanted to get her in front of the camera. Among other things, she turned us on when she said, in essence, "Higgs, shmiggs. I'm sick to death of hearing about the Higgs boson."

Last night she was great --- you could tell she was very skilled at presenting Fermilab in its best light. But occasionally things poked through the packaging, such as when she said of the budget crisis "I don't have any patience for hand-wringing and moping around. These people should have seen this coming. It was pretty obvious." That's quite a different take on the situation!

She's also great because it's clear she absolutely loves Fermilab, and is in love with the field of Particle Physics in general. I think there's always a certain amount of spin at play when you speak with a PR person, but with Judy it was immediately obvious that she truly is optimistic and practically glowing with excitement about the prospects for the future of high energy physics. Her take on America's dwindling support of high-level science? "That means Fermilab will BE high energy particle physics! How exciting is that?" Now that's optimism.

She told a good story about politicians vs. scientists: politicians usually want to know what the scientists they're funding are up to. So the 20 scientists on the committee go into a room and write a report. They send it to the politicians who read it and scratch their heads. It's never what they want, they get frustrated with the scientists who in turn get frustrated with the politicians. Judy decided to break that circle by rounding up the scientists and taking them to the politicians in washington.

"They didn't want to go," she said. "They told me I should just go for them. I said 'nope. We're all going.'" So all twenty flew to Washington where they had a meeting with the politicians, who told them exactly what they wanted. And, in fact, the scientists were surprised to find, the politicians wanted to know about the science. "We want to know what you are trying to find," they said. "Tell us what you're excited about. Then we can better understand why you want us to pay for this stuff."

So the scientists went back and wrote the report. Halfway through the process, Judy rounded them all up and flew them out to Washington again. "How are we doing?" she asked. The politicians said "No! It's all wrong!" Apparently the scientists had been "sexing it up." Trying to make the stuff more exciting, more dramatic. "Just the basic science," they said.

They went back and started over. For the first time, Judy said, they made a book that was just perfect for the politicians. For once, they were all on the same page.

That's called understanding your audience. Something that filmmakers struggle with constantly --- it was fascinating to hear about this process. Of course, the analogy is not quite right for us: we don't intend to let our audience dictate our film. But in terms of how to present something you are passionate about, it's very appropriate: the lesson the scientists learned was that honesty makes the best story.

We also found out that there are 8 new baby buffaloes --- we're planning an interview with the buffalo keeper. Monica wants a shot of an actual baby buffalo birth --- hope I've got the stomach for it. When I cringed at her suggestion, she shook her head and laughed. "You men," she said.

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