What is public engagement? Five key tips for successful public engagement with your research
Researchers are increasingly required to participate in public engagement and research communication activity. While some may believe that these activities are a distraction from their actual research, the benefits accrued from sharing your research are plentiful and can feed back into developing your work.
Presenting your research through diverse non-specialist avenues can provide key opportunities for raising both your own profile as a researcher, as well as communicating the significance of your work. In turn, these can have direct positive effects for acquiring funding, establishing yourself (and your department or institution) as an expert in the field and most importantly, bringing the value of your research out to the people and communities you hope to benefit.
Doing public engagement successfully, however, can be tricky. The way we present and talk about research needs to be significantly adjusted and we cannot simply replicate what we do within academic spaces. In this article, we highlight five key values to consider when you prepare to share your research with non-specialist audiences. These are general principles that can be applied whatever platform you are working with, including public talks, blogs or articles, and outreach events and programmes, such as with schools, industry and commerce sectors or policy makers.
1. Determine your audience
Before you even begin writing anything, be clear on who your audience is. Who will be reading or listening to what you have to say? Try to ascertain, for example, approximately how old they are, what level of education they may have, and what issues would be important to them. It can be useful, for example, to envisage the newspapers or media channels that this audience prefers.
Once you familiarise yourself with this audience, you can then tailor your content to match. For example, the way you talk about your research to an audience of secondary school children will differ considerably from the approach you would take in a presentation to potential investors.
At all times, try to visualise what this audience would care about and be interested in, and adjust your content to make it relevant and relatable to them – more on this below.
2. Keep it simple
As a researcher working so intimately in your specific field, your knowledge of the subject at hand is probably second nature to you. You probably also appreciate the importance of and connections between multiple concepts, ideas and issues – and you regard every aspect of your research, no matter how small or niche, as significant.
However, remember that a majority of your audience is likely not to know or be familiar with concepts or theories that seem basic and simple to you. You will need to prune down your message to share only one or two key issues. Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I want my audience to know?” and shape your content around this single element.
This will often mean that you may have to leave out many elements of your research or exclude the subtler nuances of your discussions. This is perfectly okay. Your audience does not need to know all the specificities or intricate details and they are more likely to remember one single, simple key idea than a very impressive, but complicated presentation.
3. Be clear and concise
Good content should be understood by anyone without any specialist training. To achieve this, strip everything you want to say back to the basics. Avoid jargon, acronyms and technical language as much as possible; if you really have to use a technical term, include no more than one or two lines to clearly explain what this term means. Using analogies or metaphors from common everyday life can be a helpful way of simplifying a complex process and helping the audience understand it in terms of something that is familiar to them.
Use simple language and short sentences. Always ask yourself if there is a clearer, simpler word or phrase that you could use – there usually is. This simplicity is not to dumb down your work, nor to talk down to your audience, but to be able to communicate your message clearly. The Gunning Fog Index, though not perfect, can be a helpful tool for gauging how clear (or convoluted!) your material is.
4. So what? Who cares?
Ultimately, you want your material to have an impact on your audience so that they understand the importance of your research, find it interesting, care about it and remember it well enough to think or talk about it further. One of the easiest ways to achieve this is to make the subject relevant, relatable and important to them – make this issue something that they want to care about.
We have discussed the importance of determining your audience. Bearing this aspect in mind as you craft your content is crucial in helping you to reach them, pique their interest and touch their lives.
As you prepare your material – whether it’s a talk, a blog post or a podcast – ask yourself at every stage: “So what? Who cares?”. This may sound callous and dismissive but it is actually an extremely effective method for honing down exactly what you are trying to convey, why it is important and why your audience should care. You’ll find it a lot easier to discard details that aren’t as important, develop clarity and be succinct.
5. Have fun
Positive energy and confidence is contagious! A key ingredient for successful public engagement is being able to impart your own passion for your research. After all, how can you expect your audience to get excited about what you have to say if you yourself are not enthused by it?
Think of these projects or events as opportunities to share or talk about all the things you love and value about your research. You have the rare privilege of being able to inform and excite others about your work, and to share the novel contributions you are making to society at large. There is so much satisfaction to be gained from seeing the interest and appreciation you can generate for your research.
Try to reframe your public engagement activity as something fun, rather than as a scary or tedious task. Presenting your research to diverse audiences will also get you out of your head and offer a stimulating and enjoyable change of scenery, so you get a break while still doing something productive.
Ultimately, your audience benefits from learning something new, you benefit by developing your skills, your research benefits from the fresh perspectives and renewed motivation you bring back to it, and your department/funders will love the additional exposure you gain for the research – everyone wins!