Time for some public engagement?

Recently, I was fortunate enough to take part in a public engagement training event that was held at my institute. It was full of really great ideas, and the motivation to get out there and tell people what you’re doing and why. One of the key things I took away from the day though, was the reasons why we, as researchers, might want to get out there and shout it from the rooftops, but also what different funding bodies might be wanting, and the most important thing of all, what motivations do the public have? How can we make sure that we actually engage everybody when we take about ‘the general public’?

Why should I even bother?

There are so many motivations for you personally communicating your research, but what about the people you’re communicating it to? According to recent surveys undertaken by Ipsos and the Wellcome Trust, the general public put their faith in scientists. This is especially important when we think about current events going on in the world. What is slightly odd about this though, is that most other ‘trusted’ professions, like Doctors and nurses, are people that you have direct contact with. Whereas, the majority of people said that they have never met a scientist.

As people who are trusted by the public, it becomes so important that we communicate our science, and do it well. The majority of funding comes from the public in one way or another, be it through tax payers money or charities. How can we make sure we do our science justice?

Think about what you’re saying, but mostly, HOW you’re saying it.

When you’ve been manning a stand for 5 hours, and saying the same thing over and over to different audiences, you’re bound to be sounding more tired and less enthusiastic than at the start. But from your audiences point of view, this is the first time they’ve heard this, and if they can hear that you’re not that interested and enthusiastic about it, then it can really give the wrong impression. They might learn about the topic in general, but rather than going away thinking that it’s a really cool area that clearly needs more investment in, they might leave thinking that it sounds fairly interesting, but mustn’t be that important in the grand scheme of things. Yes, you’ve been talking non-stop for hours, but they don’t see that. All they’re seeing is you, right there and then.

Another thing to think about, is how you emphasise different words within sentences. It can really lead to completely different meanings, and could even give off the opposite meaning to what your intention originally was. If you can, think of a really simple sentence, but every time you say it, change the emphasis to a different word. You can end up with many different meanings. A similar thing can happen if you add pauses into or in between sentences. Emphasis is a very powerful tool, use it to your advantage.

Changing your body language can help you reach your audience.

The differences between open and closed body language is well trodden territory. Open body language, not crossing your arms or legs, maintaining eye contact and standing tall, can not only help people trust you more easily, but give people the impression that you believe in what you’re saying. That you are someone who knows what they’re talking about and they definitely should listen to you.

Closed body language can unintentionally give people the impression that you aren’t convinced in what you’re saying, or maybe that you aren’t sure your research is worthy of their time.

Something to remember though, is that you might need to consider changing your body language when you’re speaking to different age groups. If you’re telling young kids about science, get down on their level. If you’re stood up and are 3 foot taller than they are, it can come across as very intimidating. Equally, if you’re speaking to a group of people who are standing when you’re seated, it can be difficult to maintain their focus on you as you’ve put yourself in a position where you aren’t commanding attention.

What kind of things can you do?

The options are endless! But, there are some things that aren’t. Time, money and resources can be limited. There are a few ways to try and narrow down what you could do. One way is to start with what you’ve got available to you and narrow down from there what you could do, based on things like who your target audience is, and what location you could use for it.

Or, you can work the other way, thinking about who your audience is, and what the best way to engage and involve them in science is. What are you’re trying to achieve? Are you making science more accessible, or trying to teach people about a certain research area or theme? Who is your audience, where and when is going to be the best place to be able to speak to them. If you’re wanting you audience to be mainly children, what are their parents might be doing while they’re carrying out your well thought-out activity? This could be your chance to double up on your engagement by having a summary about what the children are learning, maybe going into a bit more detail. This can also have the added bonus that after they’ve left, they can discuss the new ideas they’ve learnt together which can help to reinforce what you’re wanting to get across.


If you ever have the opportunity to attend something similar, I highly recommend that you make the time for it. It will be worthwhile. If you’re really good, you can even make a career out of it.



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