Guide : Why and how to communicate your research

I have written a concise 26 page Guide designed to help scientists, engineers and technologists  develop effective, attention-grabbing ways of communicating what they do and why they do it to public audiences. It is part of the package I deliver as a Masterclass around the world, most recently in Belgium for the European Cooperation for Science and Technology, Bulgaria for the British Council and Saudi Arabia for Scitech.

This Guide will help any expert think through the issues that arise when they want to talk about their work to non-experts either directly or through the mass media.

The major topics  covered are how to:

  • play a role in building bridges between expert and non-expert communities, and why it is necessary.
  • devise the  most effective ways of communicating your expertise to different audiences
  • interact with audiences effectively in informal settings
  • work with the media

Sample 1

How to get noticed in crowded spaces

Many opportunities to take science to the public involve events at which you will be one of a considerable number of exhibitors/stall holders jostling for the visitors’ attention.

Some tips that may help you stand out from the crowd are:

  • If you are given a choice, choose a “pitch” that is close to the entrance to the  hall/building. This will mean that you can’t be missed by potential audience members. If you do end up in a corner and suspect it will be little visited, find some way of drawing attention to yourselves. Using some members of the team as human signposts can be quite effective, but they need to be distinctively dressed or equipped, and that requires advance planning
  • Even if ideally placed, you will need some kind of attractor that works close to the visitor. A simple demonstration is often very effective in this role, ideally something intriguing that the visitor can learn to do in real-time
  • Your display needs to be visible or audible from a significant distance.
  • Don’t put furniture between yourself and the public
  • Plan the distribution of activities within the space so that it invites visitors to enter it, rather than walk past, for example, by placing something that will catch their attention against the back wall of your stand.
  • Limit the textual content of your exhibit as much as possible, using demonstrations, animations and cartoons to make your key points and placing more detailed material in a booklet or on a website to which you can refer visitors that seek deeper levels of information.
  • Have something to give visitors to your stall that carries your organisations name or logo. Many organisations have stocks of these give-aways used in recruitment and marketing activity. If you need your own they are not prohibitively expensive.
  • Offering on the spot prizes can be a very effective way of attracting and holding the attention of visitors, particularly young people. These inducements need not be large; any item bearing your logo works well, particularly overseas where they have greater curiosity value.
  • In many settings it will be children who engage first with your activities, with the accompanying adults only getting involved subsequently, so be sure that what ever you offer is accessible to as wide an age range as possible
  • Do not assume that your audience has a long attention span. A visitor’s initial dwell time in front of your exhibit will be a few seconds.
  • if you decide to include a quiz element in your event, take care to ensure that the average member of the audience will get most of it correct, otherwise you may risk re-enforcing their feeling that your subject is intrinsically difficult and inaccessible to lay people
  • be sure to include opportunities for the public to say how they think something works.”

Sample 2

How to prepare a Presentation

One popular option for public events is a presentation followed by discussion. It is likely that you will have made many presentations before to your colleagues and important to remember that they are not your audience on this occasion. So do whatever ever you can to understand your audience BEFORE you prepare your talk :

  • Think of your presentation from the audience’s point of view, you may need help from friends or relatives who are not experts to do this
  • Plan, prepare and deliver your talk always with the audience in mind.
  • Ask yourself:

What kind of people are they?

What do they already know?

What do they need from me?

What is likely to interest them?

Preparing your talk

  • Begin by creating a structure for your presentation. Think of it as a journey you are going to make with the audience. Remember, the audience is at its most alert for the first few minutes of your talk, after that you only have a fraction of their attention until you announce you are reaching the presentation’s end. So put your key points at the beginning and the end of your presentation
  • Once you have sorted out the itinerary for the journey, travel its whole length talking out loud. and THEN write notes to record your thoughts. This works better than writing a script or set of notes and then trying to turn it into a talk.
  • A talk is designed to be seen and heard,  not read.  So start as you mean to go on and let any notes grow out of your talking to an imaginary audience

Use of Audio-visual aids

  • Remember that audio-visual aids are there to serve your message and not the other way around.
  • Don’t use Powerpoint as an autocue
  • Don’t overwhelm your audience with material.   Give them information they are ready to understand at a pace they can absorb it.
  • Rehearse,but not for ever you risk ending up sounding like a robot
  • Test deliver the talk in every detail to some people who you trust to give useful feedback . It helps you check your key points are getting across and whether you can easily cue your slides etc.

Delivering your presentation

  • Be yourself – your uniqueness is what makes you interesting
  • Be prepared to do something about any distracting habits (ear scratching, hair fiddling, pen juggling etc)
  • Use your body.  Be expressive with your face, your hands, your voice and your eyes
  • Feel free to move around, but avoid pacing back and forward
  • Don’t stand behind furniture. It reduces your rapport with the audience
  • Constantly scan the whole audience – (but at a leisurely pace).  Don’t just talk to one person
  • Talk in a natural voice, as if you were chatting enthusiastically to a friend
  • Vary your pace and type of content. Use a variety of ways of explaining things like pictures, cartoons,  sound, physical objects and personal stories
  • Make points using analogies and metaphors, but don’t overextend them.
  • End definitely, clearly and on time
  • When designing the end of a talk ask yourself “What do I want them to do next?” or  What is the message I want them to leave with?


One Response to “Guide : Why and how to communicate your research”

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