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Ten Tips for Debating Animal Research

26 May 2015

Posted by: Tom Holder

Category: Communications & media

Understanding Animal Research recently ran a series of workshops covering openness, social media, media training and debating. This last workshop attracted an audience primarily made up of scientists and science communicators as we discussed issues relating to debating in the media and more formal, academic settings.

In this session my colleague and I set out two key elements of Presentation and Preparation. Let us take a bit of a closer look at them and how they relate to the debate on animal research, particularly focusing on more media-style debates (TV and radio).

Preparation:

The nature of the preparation changes depending whether you are going to be on TV or radio. The latter allows you to have pre-prepared notes and examples, while the former is better prepared for by asking colleagues to throw practice questions or comments at you.

Make sure you know who your audience is. Some audiences are more open to scientific argument, whereas others will be more receptive to a more emotionally driven argument (focusing on patients and how they have benefitted). Nonetheless, it is useful to have a few examples in your pocket of where animal research has played a key role in the types of medical breakthroughs that people have heard of (vaccines, transplant surgery, modern cancer treatments etc.)

It is always useful to look up your opponent in the debate and find out if he or she regularly uses the same argument. For example, if they regularly use the statistic suggesting only 0.004% of research is useful, then you should read up on his or her misconception in advance.

If you are going on TV, ensure you are dressed appropriately (erring on the side of boring – you want them listening to you not thinking about the state of your wardrobe). Stripy garments do not work well on TV screens, so try to go for softer block colours.

BBC Leicster 

Presentation:

Consider carefully what you want your audience to know at the end of the debate – break it down to three key points. You will need to consider your audience when choosing which three points to make. For example, a less informed audience might need some basic misconceptions addressed:

-          Cosmetic testing on animals is illegal

-          Alternatives must be used wherever viable

-          Animal research has played a key role in most major medical breakthroughs

In a formal debate setting where you might have five minutes or more to speak you will have to revisit these points in multiple ways, but on TV you may only get to state these facts momentarily. Remember that people also tend to remember the first and last thing you say, as well as things you repeat  - so try to get your key points in at the end however contrived it has to be:

“I just want to say one last thing. While people will have many views on the issue of animal research it is important that they know that it is not done for cosmetics in the UK, it is not done if  an alternative method exists, and it is has played a key role in many of the medical developments we take for granted – from penicillin to lung transplants.”

Try to speak slightly slower than his normally comfortable, and try to avoid overusing technical language.

Conclusion:

So can we condense this into a nice top 10 list? Let’s give it a go (in no order):

  • Get the key points in. At the heart of the animal research debate are two issues. The first is that animal research is highly regulated, with animal welfare playing a key role in all laboratory decisions. The second is that animal research remains a key element in building the understanding necessary to develop the treatments of tomorrow.
  • Prepare your arguments in advance. If you are going to debate on the radio you can write down a few short lines for later. However, regardless of the format, practise!
  • Consider your opponents standard arguments. Many activists use the same arguments over and over again. Most of these have been thoroughly debunked.
  • Consider common misconceptions. Even if they don’t come up in the debate, it can be useful to point out some common misconceptions about animal research (for instance, many people still incorrectly believe we do animal tests for cosmetics in the UK)
  • Explanations need to be simple and clear. Animal research is a complex issue, and this needs to be acknowledged, but ensure what you say remains easy to for all audiences to understand.
  • Repetition. If you have a key point to make, make it multiple times. Many people have to hear something several times before they will really take it in. 
  • Speak s-l-o-w-e-r than normal. A good tip is to speak at about the pace you would if reading a child a bedtime story – fractionally slower than you would normally.
  • Dress appropriately. This is only relevant to TV debates. Make sure you look smart, and try to avoid stripes.
  • Reflect. You will have good debates and you will have bad ones. All you can do is reflect on how it went, considering what went well and what you would do differently.

Keep an eye out for future UAR training courses. We will periodically be running training courses. Keep checking back on our website for details.