Todd McLeish: science writer

Read my phone interview with Todd McLeish, professional science writer and communicator. Todd has written hundreds of articles and 4 books focusing on the natural history of wildlife and some of the things that threaten them. During our conversation, Todd talks more about his work and provides you science communication aspirers some tips for achieving your goal.

How did the Sea otter, the most playful and adorable animal on the planet, evade extinction? Todd McLeish tells you their story in his new book,    Return of the Sea otter   . Sea otter surfacing on the Pacific coast, USA  Photo credit: Renay McLeish

How did the Sea otter, the most playful and adorable animal on the planet, evade extinction? Todd McLeish tells you their story in his new book, Return of the Sea otter. Sea otter surfacing on the Pacific coast, USA Photo credit: Renay McLeish

Todd: Hi, this is Todd

Kristen: Hi, Todd. Thanks for taking my call.

Todd: Oh, I'm glad to help. I don't mind at all! Throw your questions at me. Let me know what I can do for you.

Kristen: You have written many articles, essays, and books. If you had to condense it all, and boil it all down to one central them what would it be, or could you even do that?

Todd: Well, I'm an animal guy. That's mostly what I'm interested in. So, that's the subject matter that I try to focus on. When I'm writing my books I pick a subject that I can have a fun adventure with, but it's mostly about conservation of wildlife. That is really the main focus of what I like to write about.

Kristen: Yeah, reading some of your work, it did seem to me that maybe one of your motivations was to raise awareness about species that could use our help, help from humans.

Todd: Okay. So, from that perspective you're absolutely correct.  I mean, so again getting people to think about these animals, and to appreciate them, and to want to protect them.

Kristen: Yeah, I think that's a very admirable goal.

Todd: Yeah, and that's, I mean that's what my life is all about. I love to go out and look for wildlife because wildlife is cool, and I'm excited about it, and I want to be able to share that excitement with others. Whether it is from my stories, whether it's through my books, whether it is from leading nature walks, whether it's from speaking about these subjects on cruise ships and wherever else anybody else wants to hear me.

Kristen: Do you think that this excitement that you feel about this topic is an important piece of this communication career that you're building? Do you think that enthusiasm helps you get your messages across?

Todd: It absolutely does, and I'll tell you to be honest, one of the things that I do is I give a whole lot of public presentations for pay. I'm upbeat, I tell funny stories, I am excited about these animals and wanting to protect them, and that enthusiasm comes through certainly in my presentations. It's sometimes a little bit hard to get that enthusiasm to carry through into books, you know, but that is also pretty key. To generate some enthusiasm with your writing, and get people were reading to say, oh, this is a cool animal, and gosh we should do what we can to protect them.

Kristen: Right, so your audience that you're writing for are generally non-scientists. Is that how you would sort of describe them?

Todd: Yeah. I generally describe my audience as Audubon society members, as discovery channel watchers, as armchair travelers, general wildlife enthusiasts. People curious about the natural world around them.

Kristen: And do you have any way to gauge who your consumers end up being, like if you're hitting your target audience or not with these books?

Todd: That's a hard question.

Kristen: Yeah, It's a difficult thing I think to have a sense of.

Todd: It's an absolutely difficult thing to measure, and I'm not entirely certain. I know that when I have a book come out I give all these presentations, and so I'm able to see my audience when they show up to my presentation.

Kristen: Right, it's really nice to have that physical feedback.

Todd: It absolutely is. Being in the presence of my readers is a big help to getting a sense for, am I doing it right? Should I have done something differently? Are they getting it? And so far it seems like I'm doing okay.

Kristen: Wow, that's awesome. Do you have specific techniques from your communication degrees that you still go back to and use? Do you have really important ones that stand out? I mean coming from a science education, I haven't had that formal training at all, so I'm just curious what sort of tools you rely on?

Todd: Well, I'll be honest with you; I didn't take many writing classes.

Kristen: Really?!

Todd: So, I got my writing education mostly by reading and paying attention to what a well-written story looks like. And writing. That's how I essentially learned to write is by reading good writing.

Kristen: Yeah, essentially immersing yourself in your field.

Todd: Exactly, exactly.

Kristen: If you were speaking to the fellow graduate students in our public engagement with science class, what pieces of advice would you offer for us who might be pursuing a career in science writing? I'm hearing it might be that a lot of it comes from experience, but based on your experience, what can you offer?

Todd: We're sort of in a reverse situation, whereas I'm the non-scientist interviewing the scientists, and you guys are all scientists yourselves. So, I suppose the key really is going to be that you need to bring the science down to a level the non-scientists can understand. In order to keep people engaged in science, who aren't scientists, you need to bring them little nuggets of science that they can digest.

Kristen: Right!

Todd: The other thing that, for me, is I wrap my science in my adventures. A key element is I go out there with the biologists and help them  with their research, and that means I have these first person adventures to be able to share. Those first person adventures are able to keep people engaged in the story long enough that I can share some hard science as well.

Kristen: Yeah, so frame things like a story, use analogies and just talk to your grandma.

Todd: Talk to your grandma, yes!

Kristen: I love it. Thanks so much. I really appreciate your time, Todd.

Todd: No problem at all, glad to help.

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Todd's newest book is now available!

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About the author:
Kristen J. DeMoranville is a Ph.D. student researching the effects of diet and long-distance flight on a migratory songbird in Scott McWilliams lab at the University of Rhode Island

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