Today’s Thing is focused on communicating complex ideas effectively, and rather than detailing a particular resource or tool, it’s a more conceptual activity. The idea is to reflect on ways to communicate research in lots of different contexts, going beyond traditional academic avenues such as publications or specialist conferences and into outreach with the general public. There’s lots of advice in today’s video/transcript, but the elements that particularly resonated with me were the suggestion to find a personal angle or a quirky anecdote that your audience could relate to their own experiences.
My former academic department where I did my MPhil and PhD was particularly good at this, partly because it had the good fortune to focus on the languages, history, literature and material culture of medieval Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia – subjects which have broad appeal thanks to popular culture such as The Lord of the Rings, endless Arthurian adaptations, and, more recently, Game of Thrones. Researchers and postgrad students in this department frequently did outreach events that related historical events in medieval Britain to the current political climate, or focused on a younger audience with hands-on activities such as building Viking ships. I learnt a lot during my time as a postgraduate in this department about communicating research to the general public.
These days, I do a lot less original research, and a lot more helping other people do their own research, teaching library users how to search databases, conduct systematic reviews, manage data and references, write for publication, and keep up to date with developments in their field. When teaching these subjects, particularly in a group setting where I use fake examples to demonstrate techniques and resources (rather than tailoring the content to an individual attendee’s specific research), it’s crucial that I give personal or otherwise relevant anecdotes to relate the teaching content back to the attendees’ individual circumstances. So, for example, when encouraging students to start using reference management software, I tell them that I didn’t use such software during my PhD, which meant that I spent the final days before submission frantically copying and pasting more than five hundred footnotes into a bibliography and checking that I was using a consistent citation style. Not much fun! With anecdotes like that, I’m able to get the students thinking about the effect using such resources might have on their own studies. So even though I’m not communicating about original research, I do need to make sure I’m communicating new resources and techniques effectively to my students.
The other thing I found most helpful from today’s Thing was the emphasis on context and its role in driving communication style. I think for any researcher to communicate effectively, they must bring an awareness that different contexts call for different approaches: what works well in a conference with their peers may not work in a class taught to undergraduates, which in turn is different to a blog post, press release, or hands-on public outreach session geared towards children. A good communicator will take this into account and tailor the content, style and delivery accordingly. This is certainly something I try to be aware of when teaching.