As one of the organisers of the New Ideas Festival which is taking place in Lancaster, UK from 21st November 2011 to 26th November 2011, I am currently thinking through ways of presenting my PhD research to non-academic audiences. I have discussed my research regularly at a number of national and international conferences and have casually thrown around academic technical terms such as identity, discourse and masculinity, but like others, when it comes to telling friends and family what I do, I freeze up, get uncomfortable and struggle to know how to explain it (see a great blog post about this on the Thesis Whisperer site). Following a training session yesterday connected to the Festival with Dr Jim Wild, Reader in Space Plasma Physics at Lancaster University and Rebecca Heron, from the Student and Recruitment Outreach office, I wanted to share some hints and tips about how to go about the often daunting task of communicating research to non-academic audiences.
Here are 7 ideas that came out of the session. These are intended to challenge those potential perceptions of researchers as old professors buried in library books by celebrating creativity. While these are practical ways of introducing your topic, the most important thing is that you know what key messages you want to get across to your audiences. The options are fairly interchangeable and several can be used in one session if appropriate. I’d love to hear more suggestions if you have them.
1. Surprise and novelty
Introducing surprise and novelty helps you to stand out from the crowd and to capture diverse audiences. It takes the focus off yourself and makes you memorable. Surprise may happen when you make the link between your research and the audiences own experiences in an unexpected way, and novelty is determined by the choice of methods you use to describe what you do.
2. Challenges and competition
One way to get people engaged is to introduce elements of competition and challenge. Playing small games such as Taboo for example not only help you as a researcher to learn how to avoid using technical academic language, but they can also help to get your audience involved and to actively work out what you do and why. You can introduce prizes and freebies here as well as a reward to your audience.
3. Choice and control
Giving the audience some choice and control over the content you deliver can encourage them to direct their learning based on their existing knowledge. Ask them questions and let them decide what they want to know (but phrase it well!). Pertinent and thought provoking questions are useful so if you research climate change for example you may ask questions the audience can relate too i.e. “Would you go frizzy to save the world?”
4. Design forms of active learning
As Jim put it, nothing aids memories of a topic more than thinking about a man running around a lecture theatre to illustrate the age of the universe! The more active you are in your presentation, the more interesting and enthusiastic you will appear…and also more memorable!!!
5. Provide sensory experiences
Using visual aids, sounds, videos and props relating to your research (see photo above) are a great way of making a presentation interesting and creative to capture an audience’s imagination. Rebecca suggested getting audiences of secondary school age to put questions on balloons as an innovative way to introduce some fun at the end of a session.
6. Encourage social interactivity and reward
Even in today’s technology driven world people love a freebie!! In past events, Jim was surprised that even tech savvy teenagers love a free sticker or pen! You don’t need to go mad and spend a fortune; the simple things still count and still impress!
7. Make your topic relatable
Something that works well with groups of people, including teenagers, is using activities that mimic TV shows and quizzes; things people consume in their everyday lives. This is a great way of breaking down complex research topics into bite sized chunks and engaging your audience. Million Pound Drop with chocolates introduces a competitive element to your presentation and allows you to develop questions that, if well designed can help you to get across the key messages of your research.