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Ten most important things about sharing your research with the 'real world'

A challenge from AnneMarie Dorland, a finalist in SSHRC Storytellers Challenge

Communications scholar AnneMarie Dorland was one of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Storytellers Challenge finalists, and was awarded the Engagement Prize on May 29, 2017. Photo courtesy SSHRC

By AnneMarie Dorland
June 13, 2017

Communications scholar and PhD candidate AnneMarie Dorland was recently selected as one of the top 25 finalists in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Storytellers Challenge. The challenge asks post-secondary students to step up to take part in the wider conversations about contemporary issues that social scientists are working to understand and address.

As researchers, we are storytellers. We may not all think of it this way, but through our papers and our conference presentations we tell our team members and our colleagues stories about what we know, the questions we have, and the important answers we are finding through our studies and our work. But how can we get our stories out into the world?

Connecting the important work done at the University of Calgary by faculty and students alike with the world outside our campus is more important now than ever. But to do this we have to move beyond the world of academic conferences where we meet with our peers and colleagues — not an easy task when our research is specialized, highly technical or theoretical, or accessible only to those who speak our language of jargon or terminology.

As one of the Top 25 SSHRC Storytellers this year at Congress, I recently had the chance to take part in a coaching session with Shari Graydon of Informed Opinions, and I presented my own study for the first time to an audience of people outside my field and in the media. I saw first-hand the value of connecting with a non-academic audience — I even had friends and family confess after nearly 10 years that they hadn’t fully understood what I was researching until they saw my three-minute video!

With the hope of inspiring us all to bring our work out of the conference and into the larger community, here are the 10 most important things we need to remember as faculty, fellow and student researchers about connecting the important work we’re doing on campus with “the real world.”

  1. Ask A Normal Person: before presenting your work to an audience of policy, industry or advocacy people, run your deck past a non-expert, and pay attention to the slides you need to stop to explain. Even better, run your presentation past a non-expert who is willing to tell you when you begin to speak in jargon: what is normal to you inside your faculty may be incomprehensible to others, and this can get in the way of your important message.
  2. Step away from the paper: We invest so heavily in crafting the right language to communicate our ideas, but this is rarely how we would explain our work to a friend or colleague. Take a risk, and try to leave the paper behind — by presenting your work as a video, an infographic, a short podcast or a poster you force yourself to rethink what is important about your contribution, and what may actually be an academic crutch.
  3. Think inside the box: By providing yourself with a time limit for your presentation you can discover the beauty of creativity within constraint. According to Stanford’s d.School, “Research on creativity and constraint demonstrates that, when options are limited, people generate more, rather than less, varied solutions — apparently because their attention is less scattered.” Find out more.
  4. Make a promise you don’t want to keep: Deadlines are a great motivator, and terrifying ones are even better. Commit publicly to sharing your work, and tell others about your promise. Ask them to hold you to it and you’ll find yourself rising to the occasion.
  5. Practice thinking, don’t just think: Presenting your research to a non-academic audience can start small — in fact, research is showing that small steps are the secret to personal growth. Neuroscientist Philippe Goldin suggests that making one comfort-minimizing change a week can be the key to take advantage of healthy levels of anxiety. “Build up over time … That way, giant leaps won’t seem quite so big.” Create a blog and treat it the way an artist treats their sketch pad: it is valuable space in which to practice for larger work, and to ease out the kinks in your thoughts.
  6. Remember that your topic is more than just your study: Before engaging the wider public with your research, consider connecting on social media with those who care about your field and the issues that motivate you. By moving beyond the community of your discipline and into a worldwide community that is interested in the larger topic, you’ll find great connections to new ideas and new thinkers — maybe even to new opportunities to share your work.
  7. Take a look in the mirror: Presenting your work to the public effectively is about more than just a great set of slides. Practice your body language, your eye contact, even the way you vary your pitch and tone while presenting until you are ready to treat your engagement as a conversation rather than a lecture. By making a video recording of yourself practicing, you’ll expose all your embarrassing presentation habits before they become a distraction from your key message on presentation day.
  8. Focus on the critical impact of your research: What are the consequences if you don’t do this important work? What will the world be missing? Though we may not realize it, members of policy, industry, financial and not-for-profit communities really are interested in what you have to say, but they need to know why it matters.
  9. Develop shareable resources for your audience: Providing slide decks, infographics, Twitter-friendly statements and accessible web-based materials lets others connect with your message, and the findings you are sharing. Make these resources clear and accessible, and the work that you care so much about can really come to life.
  10. Find your “aha,” and don’t lose it! Your key takeaway should be one sound bite, and you should be able to teach it to someone in your presentation well enough that they can share it with others. By always pivoting back to that key message, you’ll keep your presentation focused and accessible.

This matters, and not just because disseminating knowledge is our duty as academics. At a recent SSHRC funding information town hall held here on campus, Tim Wilson described the critical importance of moving beyond the “same old same old conference, website, paper trifecta” in postdoc and research funding applications: finding a way to engage the public with your research can be the difference between continuing with funding, or not continuing at all.

So this is the challenge I’d like to make to you: make a commitment to sharing your research in one non-academic way before next year’s conference season. Try a blog post, or make a Facebook story, shoot a three-minute seminar for YouTube or contact a colleague outside your department to see if you can share your work with them. I know that you’ll find the exercise both challenging and rewarding in equal measure. Most importantly, it will help you rethink your research as a story that you can tell others — a story that could change people’s lives and their minds — if you tell it right.

On May 29, 2017, Dorland was awarded the engagement prize for her commitment to sharing her story.  Follow her on Twitter and check out her blog at Doing Design Thinking. Read about the year’s top five winning students in the Storytelling Challenge.