As part of a Organisational and Professional Development (OPD) working lunch entitled ‘Engaging the Public with Research’ I was invited to be part of a panel at the University of Dundee. I was invited because of my experience in disseminating and integrating research with different public audiences, such as my Cafe Science talk or my RIBA talk, the work I did for The Building Research Establishment (BRE) and the articles I have contributed to the Centre for Accessible Environments (CAE) Journal Access by Design. 
All Highlights
Methods I have used to disseminate research have included, my website and BESiDE’s project website, professional magazine articles, Design Seminars, The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Architectural Seminars, HCI Conferences, Cafe Science talks, Architectural practices and Care Homes. 
Armed with my experience of public talks, engagement through blogging and writing articles for newspapers and less academic forums, I was excited to contribute to the discussion. Participants ranged from postdoc to senior lecturer level and they all engaged with great questions for the panel.
As part of a panel of 3 (engagement officers, media representatives and myself- a researcher) discussion and questions focused on 6 key themes:
  • How to start – how to instigate public engagement, find interested parties and venues.
  • Support at the University and School Engagement – finding out about the different methods, contacts and groups the University are connected with and making the most of these connections.
  • Funding/Budgets – funding public dissemination and writing this aspect into research bids.
  • Working with the media/blogging- advertising public engagement and blogging about it to connect and re-connect people with what is happening.
  • Benefits of Public Engagement – each of us talking about what we have gained from taking part in public engagement.

I must admit that presenting my work through public engagement is one of my favourite things when it comes to presentations. I often feel nervous before any presentation, but the nerves definitely increase before a public presentation. I enjoy them immensely and have been fortunate to always get insightful and inquisitive audience members.

It is often said that there are 2 major ways of communicating your research findings – writing for publication and presenting at conferences – however I would argue that there are 3. I would add public engagement to the list. Each of the 3 methods are different and those differences need to be realised to effectively be able to tell different audiences about your work.

I often use a set of questions to help me in the planning and drafting phase of presentations and papers and I talked about these with the panel. The questions include,

  • How can I reach my desired target audiences? (For example in reaching architects an architects magazine or trade journal could potentially have a better reach and engagement than an academic journal.)
  • What is their availability in terms of time? (For example an abstract, briefing paper or executive research summary could be more effective than a several paged research paper. Could websites, video, conferences, drama or an exhibition be an effective method for your research?)
  • How can you accommodate their levels of interest, and levels of understanding? (For example visual slides could be more effective than slides with a lot of text- that way your audience with listen to you instead of reading your slides.)
  • Would people come to a seminar or meeting? (For example bring your own lunch seminars or coffee-break seminars can help audience numbers at seminars and aid in networking.)

Being a panel member within this group made me think about my top-tips of engaging the public in research… it is a developing list….but here they are:

1.Presenting yourself and SMILE – A friendly face and someone who is open to informal chats and questions makes academic research and an academic more accessible.

2. Tell the story of your research – give an overview to the problem, what others have done, your motivation, what you did and what you found. Make it clear, jargon free and fill your slides with images instead of text. People have come to listen to you – not read your words from a screen.

3. Explain the challenges, the disasters and the eureka moments – is there a funny story to tell.

4. Encourage your audience to use social media to talk about your presentation and research. A twitter handle on the first slide (and throughout) can help you introduce this aspect of further dissemination into the presentation.

5. What is the point of each slide – there must be a point or it can be cut in the final edit. A re-cap at the end of several slides can really help to summarise your argument, motivation or reasoning. It can help to ‘park’ a section of the presentation before moving onto a next section. A re-cap of the re-caps at the end of a presentation can help instigate audience participation and questions.

6. Visuals visuals visuals – ‘a picture says a thousand words’. An image tells a story of a slide and the audience can concentrate on what you are saying. Text is a huge NO for me in presentations – both in terms of me giving presentations and me as an audience member in a presentation.

7. Don’t rush your words – Pauses are calm moments, like the white space in an image, to let your message sink in. When I get nervous I babble and talk really fast – I am learning to slow this down and practicing in front of friends, colleagues and the mirror helps -‘Practice makes perfect’. Nerves are normal – check out my blog about dealing with nerves when giving presentations.

8. 20’s plenty – there are whole paragraphs and pages of text behind every statement that you make in your presentation. The challenge is to summarise and give an overview. Leaving time for questions is key – it is how you encourage participation. It’s how you learn to effectively present (and make changes to style or slides) and it’s also the key way to understand if your audience has understood your message. Questions can offer new insight to you and can also help you clarify or go into more detail about the topics covered.

9. Always have a take home message. This is a statement which you have maybe stated before in your slides or is a summary of slides. This is the message that you want people in the audience to remember you for. They will make their own – of course, but reinforcing your idea is a great way to finish and conclude your presentation without having to say – ‘right – thats my presentation over – questions?’

10. Funding: If there are new ideas for dissemination perhaps more funding is needed. Two places that I know of are the Nuffield Foundation and the ESRC Follow on Funding Scheme….there will be more.

11. ….and relax – after a presentation relief that it wasn’t as bad as you thought will probably hit you. A short time to reflect on your presentation style and slides is always helpful to better prepare you for the next one.



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