By Tashi Gyaltsen, CHERISH-DE
One of the key communications skills we look at in CHERISH-DE leadership development programme (UK Digital Economy Crucible) is how well you articulate your research to the public. When I was approached on recommendation to deliver a half-day workshop on the subject to an intimate group of theoretical scientists, my first reaction was that of thrill and apprehension. I accepted the opportunity and off I went to the University of Algarve, in Faro where the week-long workshop ‘CCC 2018: Continuity, Computability, Constructivity – From Logic to Algorithms’ was held. Workshop participants were expert in various computational disciplines and hailed from universities in Europe, Asia and North and South America. A full list of the participants and their institutions can be found here. They had a half day slot to take a break from the grueling conference sessions and explore how to communicate research to the public.
Before diving into the tips and techniques, we had an in-depth look at the public – who they might be, what do they want and why they are important. I gave a snapshot of the public, including a single parent, a retired couple, a person with limited mobility, a young person at university, a young family and professionals such as a nurse, a bricklayer, a store holder and a member of parliament. They are from different ages and different socio-economic backgrounds, but they are all keen to know about things that affect their lives.
The public are crucial to academics because most research grants come from the public funding, and because ultimately knowledge has to help society.
We then got into how we communicate our research in the most common way: what do you do? This can be a challenging, often awkward, situation to be in. It is obvious, but the public are not experts so avoid using jargon or technical words (if you do use a technical word such as algorithm, follow up with a simple explanation). They are busy people and will have limited time to understand what you are saying. My other advice was to identify your research to everyday matters (such as weather, transportation, hospital, phones etc) when you need to explain further, and always relate to things that are important to people’s lives such as health, security, family, comfort, finance, culture, livelihood, convenience etc.
We had a further discussion on how it is especially challenging for theoretical scientists when they need to explain what they do and how it has impact on the public. To motivate the group, I showed a process: their expertise could be in computable analysis (for example) that uses mathematical models or computer simulations (or any other technical methods or approach) to solve problems in biology discipline that are active in the healthcare sector. This sector is heavily used by and linked with the public. And there is your connection!
So when a member of general public asks that dreaded question, “what do you do?” Some examples you could consider are:
- I am passionate about using mathematical models to create safer computer systems that are used in railways and airplanes
- I build models and simulations that are used to predict disruptive weather events such as flooding, strong winds, fog and heavy snowfall
- I help reduce dengue infections by using mathematical model and simulation of how virus among people and mosquitoes are spread
The above answers are more sensible to the public than saying “I’m a lecturer in computable analysis in the area covering discrete complexity”.
We then looked at how similarly we could articulate that in a written form when we engage with the public at an event or on the street – using a leaflet, a poster, or simply a postcard. We looked at this in two forms: a research headline, and a brief research summary. The golden rule absolutely applies here as to avoid technical terms. Use verbs or adjectives in your heading such as improve, developing, produce, increase, reduce that immediately tells the public your research is doing/achieving something. Make it exciting and fun. Also, again, tell them in the heading how it relates to things that are important to our lives. And lastly, keep it to 7-8 words (fewer if possible).
After an exercise we looked at some appealing heading suggestions such as:
- Improving Thailand Railway’s signal processing
- Making banking system safer by building a robust mathematical model
- Using mathematical models to help eliminate dengue fever in Nepal
We also looked at reaching out to the public on social media. Twitter and Facebook are powerful platforms to showcase, attract or simply inform your colleagues, friends and family members of what you do. As well as clicking ‘Like’ button on a post that has a cute dog, you can also express what you do – in an everyday language, giving practical examples. Donor acknowledgement or visibility in your social media posts are also increasingly important for public awareness – that the EU or EPSRC or AHRC has funded this amazing research which will aim to bring a meaningful impact to our lives. And to show an example, we did a mockup of a tweet of the conference (below).
In a typical twitter post, you mention/tag the speaker, hashtag or tag what you are doing, in a simple language say what’s new or exciting about that speakers’ talk, and then tag your audience (@donor, @community, @household_names that people may search for), use #hashtags for what are relevant to the tweet such as subject matter, discipline, research area, trends; have a call for action – in this case asking people to read the speaker’s paper, and lastly take/upload pictures of what’s happening or of the event so the public can make sense of your information. When you tag a person or a donor or a community, it will pop up in notification on their Twitter account (so they are more likely to read your tweet). When you hashtag a subject matter or discipline or a trendy research area, you are including your tweet to be searchable on Twitter on those hashtag keywords, such as #AI #logic #discreetcomplexity #ML
We rounded up the workshop on how to follow up your simple research heading with equally simple sentence(s) of your research overview to go on a poster. There are many ways and versions of how you can write a summary in a succinct way. We explored a shortened version of a commonly used technique of articulating what the research does, normally achieving an overall bigger picture outcome, by doing xyz, normally research activities/approach. A couple of suggestions we looked at were:
- The project transforms the treatment of eye diseases by creating algorithm, which is a mathematical set of rules, that enables a computer to accurately analyse eye scans
- The project enables the Thailand rail authorities to adopt a safer signalling system by utilising OnTrack railway verification tool pioneered in the UK.
One interesting observation was that the participants spent time writing as best as they could. When they read it out to me, some of them didn’t make a great deal of sense. But when I asked them to explain what they were trying to say in the summary, it made complete sense! So, if you can, write it down first, explain it to a non-technical person, and then re-write it in the way you just explained! One of the most appealing written answers at the workshop was from Ulrich Berger, Swansea University (see below):
And lastly, an observation from the conference co-chair Prof Dieter Spreen (University of Siegen):
“Showing relevance or real-world application of the theoretical research has been an ongoing challenge. At CCC2018 conference, we wanted to explore how it is possible to address this issue by broadening our horizon on the general public and adopt simple, practical ways to communicate our research to them. We are going through a complex geopolitical time where donor visibility has become increasingly important and how we also communicate that to the general public is crucial. I’m pleased Tashi Gyaltsen from Swansea University delivered a passionate workshop on this subject that was fun, interactive and beneficial to the participants. I certainly took away some practical tips on how I can come across better when conversing with a member of public. So I thank Tashi again for his fantastic workshop!”