By Toss Gascoigne

I’ve been running media skills workshops with Econnect for 20 years now, but our recent workshop in Beijing was a new challenge.

Our workshop began as an internal CSIRO course, but grew and spread as other science groups in Australia heard about it and asked if we could run it for them too.

500 workshops later, the news reached Beijing.

The Chinese wondered if the principles behind our workshops could be transferred to China, with the aim of stimulating a discussion on science which would lend weight to China’s rapid advance into the league of modern economies.

We were confident our workshop would travel.

We had already gone international, running workshops in New Zealand, Bogota, Manila, Chiang Mai, Brussels, Lisbon and Capetown. It had worked on 5 other continents, so why not China?

A Chinese delegation came to Australia on a fact-finding mission. We talked with them all day on the Econnect deck before heading off with them to the koala sanctuary for the complete cultural exchange.

Later, after a full-on email exchange, Jenni and I travelled to Beijing to run a sample workshop.

The workshop was to be in English (our Mandarin is limited to ‘hello’, ‘thanks’, ‘cheers!’ and ‘ice-cream’).

Our hosts organised three journalists, one each from radio, TV and print.

And they recruited 4 scientists—2 nuclear scientists and 2 food scientists—to be the guinea pig interviewees.

The event was organised with the usual Chinese attention to detail.

With 10 observers from the China Association for Science and Technology and the China Research Institute for Science Popularization, 3 attendants guarding the doors, and 2 waiters constantly refreshing our tea, it was a packed room.

Group photo

Jenni and Toss (front, centre) with Chinese scientists and journalists, Beijing, August 2012

The day was a slow-motion version of our normal workshop to allow for translations across languages and cultures, and clarifications and explanations.

Conversations in China between scientists and journalists are a bit more respectful than in some western countries, and it’s important to keep these cultural differences in mind.

We began with the TV journalist. He explained his daily routine and how he selected stories to cover on the day.

The TV journalist answered questions from the scientists and then, with us working through a translator, interviewed a scientist in front of the group.

When we played back the video of the interview, it all looked remarkably familiar—the same questions, the same formats, the same short grabs.

A university study in Melbourne shows the average length of a grab on Australian TV news is 6.7 seconds. It’s a little longer in China.

We then worked through the same procedure with the radio journalist and the print journalist.

We ended up with an all-in media conference where the journalists questioned the scientists, following a brief statement from the scientists.

In their feedback on the workshop, the scientists said that they liked the interviews and scored the workshop 6.2 out of 7.

We’re waiting for an official response, but the next stage is likely to be a train-the-trainer session in Beijing, run by Jenni and me.

Then the workshop will be rolled out as another Australian export to the world’s largest country.