How can research plans and findings be communicated to a diverse audience?

How can research plans and findings be communicated to a diverse audience?

Jasmiini Pylkkänen

For a while I thought that it was not very common (or even desirable) for a first year PhD student to present research plans and early findings outside of academic seminars and related workshops. I was under the impression that the “right time” to engage with a more diverse audience loomed further ahead,  after conducting a major part of my fieldwork and spending time in the research chamber analyzing the results. However, after my first months as a PhD student I realized that some reconsidering was in order. What if  these assumptions were based on academic norms before the time of online news outlets, social media and other fast and easy channels of communication?

Now, when I am well into my first year as a PhD student, I have understood that it can indeed be very useful to engage with a broad audience at an early stage in the research process. Among other things, presenting plans and preliminary findings to people with varied backgrounds can be a way of getting honest feedback beyond one’s own academic (and social media) bubble. Furthermore, it makes sense to practice, so that when the research proceeds and the results (inevitably) get more complex, one knows a little bit better how to communicate both with  those who are interested, and those who ought to be.

This realization comes with one big challenge – how to get started?

Luckily, REXSAC’s key funder, NordForsk, thinks that it is a good idea to start training PhD students in science communication and outreach already in the early stages of our research careers. Together with collaborators from Québec (the Institut nordique du Québec, INQ, and the Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, FRQNT), NordForsk has arranged a  presentation event at the Arctic Circle Assembly in October 2017, where 12 PhD students from Quebec and from different Nordic Centres of Excellence (NCoE) in Arctic research have been signed up for a (friendly) competition.

Against this backdrop, on a very rainy Wednesday evening in late September, I traveled to Oslo to take part in a day-and-a-half-long training session on science communication. This was my very first time in Norway, so I was obviously quite excited about the opportunity. In addition to Sandra Fischer and myself from REXSAC, two PhD students from ReiGN (Reindeer Husbandry in a Globalizing North – Resilience, Adaptations and Pathways for Actions) and two from CLINF (Climate-change Effects on the Epidemiology of Infectious Diseases and the Impacts on Northern Societies)  attended the training at the NordForsk headquarters. It took some time to break the ice, but we had a very experienced trainer, Mr. Quentin Cooper, to guide us through. Quentin shared with us insights from both being a science communicator and from training science communicators.

There were so many important take-home lessons from the workshop that one blogpost can hardly capture it all, but there were some general pieces of advice on science communication that I found and find especially useful.

First, it became obvious to me during the workshop that I had already, only a few months into my PhD, fallen into the trap of thinking that “more is better” – of trying to be convincing by spelling out as many details of my research project as possible. Now I realize that I should actually strive to do the opposite. As Quentin put it, “the key to all science communication is working out which facts you can avoid telling”.

Telling fewer facts when communicating one’s research does not mean oversimplifying the message. To catch the attention of a diverse audience, it is better to carefully select a few very relevant facts and figures  and to build one’s message around them – to be concise and tell a convincing story. Rather than drowning the audience in a vast array of details, it is better to offer more information later for those who became really interested (“Here are my contact details…” “I’ve co-written a report about this and it can be read at…” “My twitter handle is…”). With social media,  there are so many ways to get in touch with people and share information also after a presentation. .

Should every PhD student then turn his or her research presentation into a story, when facing a diverse audience? Not exactly, but as Quentin reminded us, people do like stories. Oftentimes it does not even matter what the story is about – the format itself already attracts and holds people’s attention better than mere facts.

When discussing the advice about telling stories, some of us  got very worried at first. “But I am not very good at telling stories in front of people, it does not come naturally to me,” I found myself thinking. I soon learned, however, that the trick is not to go overboard or completely out of character. One should rather match any pieces of advice on science communication with one’s own personality traits and one’s current strengths and weaknesses. One of the workshop participants had already before the workshop crafted a beautiful story around his research, with matching photos and everything. He did not need much training on the idea of using a storyline to deliver his message, but instead some practice on looking more at the audience while telling the story. Another PhD student spontaneously added a snapshot of her family life into her research presentation, to help illustrate the prevalence of the dilemma she was about to study more in detail with her PhD project.

At first, I struggled a lot with this “storytelling” . How could I connect it with my particular research topic? Eventually I realized that there is no need for a full-scale “story” in every presentation. It is enough to make one’s research communication more personal. For example, during my presentation I could share some insights on how  I landed upon my research topic and why I am so passionate about it. It all started when I read  an online article on a mining tailings pond accident in Canada. Because of that article, I contacted the supervisor for my master’s thesis and explained that I urgently needed to change my thesis topic almost completely.

Lastly, during the science communication workshop we also talked a lot about timing. In academic circles, PhD students become accustomed to presenting their latest findings at conferences and other academic gatherings. However, when communicating with more diverse audience, the focus does not need to be on the very latest results. Insights from an earlier stage of a research project – or from one’s previous research  – can be very new for the audience, and maybe even more topical. For example, a study on how climate change can influence environmental risks related to mining tailings ponds is perhaps of interest only to a very specific group of stakeholders if no accidents have happened with such ponds. However, if an embankment of a mining tailings pond breaks somewhere and climatic factors (e.g. changes in the seasonal distribution of rainfall) were part of the picture, then studies of similar cases are probably more likely to catch the attention of the general public, policy makers, and media..

This blogpost has only scratched the surface of the complex topic of science communication – and my journey into learning the “craft” has only just begun. In any case, I am certain that this is a topic to reflect on, both for PhD students and for more seasoned researchers. I guess everyone who is new at outreach activities will stumble several times before figuring out their own good “mix” of science communication techniques. After taking my first steps, I trust it will eventually get easier and realize that it can also be a lot of fun!




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Jasmiini Pylkkänen Jasmiini Pylkkänen

University of Oulu