Tactic #2: Read Your Audience

 In networking, PhD/Postdoc Blog, professional development, Science communications

Develop your mission into a brief story-for colleagues in your field, for your family and friends, for kids, and for academics outside your expertise.

How I’m Creating a Dynamic Career as a Dual Scientist and Story-teller, Part 2 of 6: Tactic #2: Read Your Audience

Imagine you’re at summertime family barbecue with not a cloud in sight, where easy-going chatter and laughter floats in a breeze, carrying notes of BBQ char and sweet watermelon. Conversation stalls momentarily, heads turn your way, and someone asks: “So, what do you study in graduate school?”

Mid-bite, you freeze and stare at the crowd. This is just like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book from childhood, only this adventure comes with adult life-size pressure and very real consequences. You mentally shuffle through your options:

  1. Tell them exactly what you do, but only after setting the stage with a brief learning opportunity to define key terms and discuss a few relevant mechanisms while you’re at it. This stuff is important!
  2. Giggle nervously, ignore the question, and change the topic. ‘Isn’t the weather gorgeous-just gorgeous today?!’
  3. Rather than sharing exactly what you do, tell the family why it’s important and how it’s relevant to their life (in a direct or indirect way).

While this scenario probably resurfaces cringe-worthy memories from events past, this isn’t real life. Lucky for you, dear reader- think of this post as Science Communication 101. Just like in a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book, you can cheat and read ahead to the outcomes associated with each scenario:

Option A: Thirty seconds go by and the party-goers are impressed at your technical knowledge! You’re doing great! The clock is a’ ticking, you’re two minutes into the background talk, and-wait, what? The once animated eyes in the crowd glaze over, you’re losing your mojo, and you haven’t even gotten to the best part! Just like that, they’re gone. You lost them.

Option B: The crowd takes the hint you’re not open for conversation, and they politely take your invitation to change the topic. This was a missed opportunity for a genuine answer to a genuinely curious question. You’ll still be ‘that scientist kid’ who does ‘mysterious science-type things’ in school. You’ll continue to be the curious specimen at family gatherings that no one is quite sure how to engage with. Oof.

Option C: You give a 15-30 second elevator talk about why your science is cool, and how it’s important to your guests’ lives. You banish all jargon and give just enough information to pique everyone’s interest and invite further questions, if and only if they wish to hear more. While you cleverly have an arsenal of elevator talks, you selected the one designed just for this crowd and occasion. Congratulations! Mission accomplished.

I’m personally working on making Option C my default in these situations, and I challenge my fellow scientists to do the same! There is a method to this madness that builds upon Tactic #1 from last month’s post, which was:

First, Identify your mission. Mine is to make my science relevant to everyday people, i.e. the ones who will benefit from my science the most. This leads me to Tactic #2:

Develop your mission into a brief story-for colleagues in your field, for your family and friends, for kids, and for academics outside your expertise. Count them up, and that’s four versions of the same talk! With four possible options at your fingertips, the next step is to read your audience, and select the one that fits the crowd.

To say I achieved this feat alone would be far from the truth; In fact, I called on a little help from my friends at the UC Davis Science Communication Workshop in March, 2018. To say this one workshop raised my story-telling ability from a B- to an A is 100% accurate. Here’s what we did, and here’s what I challenge you to try as well:

  1. Partner up with someone outside of your field. Allow Partner A one minute to explain what her research entails. Partner B listens, and then offers feedback, after which partner B gets his turn to speak and receive feedback.
  2. This time, each partner is allowed 30 seconds to explain their research.
  3. Next, each partner is allowed 15 seconds maximum to summarize their research and receive feedback (Yes, this is difficult, and yes, this is necessary!)
  4. For the grand finale, each participant presents their research individually to the entire room (we had about 40!) This is a timed one-minute talk, and ideally the audience is from dissimilar fields.

If this sounds terrifying, it absolutely is! Public speaking is not easy, but trust me in that this experience (drill, rather?) single-handedly morphed my mission statement into a brief story I’m proud to share at family gatherings. I’m currently perfecting my remaining elevator talks using the same four-step method, because why? Effective science communication bolsters our own credibility, proves that real science is done by real people, it leads to potential collaborative research opportunities, and it inspires the next generation of young scientists to embark on our journey.

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  • Matthew Davidson

    I like option C too. It’s good to keep checking in to see if they are still listening as you get more technical. I’ll add that it’s also nice to have a bailout move: “Oh I got boring? Well check out this 3d printed metal gear I have on me keychain!!”

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