How Can Academics Communicate Better? Recycle, Rinse, Repeat.
First, check out this old video.
How’d I do? This was my contribution to UC Berkeley’s Grad Slam, where graduate students have to present their doctoral or master’s research projects in three minutes. I thought I have pretty good dictation skills, so I gave it shot. I didn’t advance to the next round (which is why you see the video here), but we live and learn, right ?Believe me, I’m probably my worst critic, so I’ve seen all the mistakes you’ve probably noticed and then some. All things considered, I’m proud of the effort.
But, I didn’t write this article just to show off my amateur Youtube video editing skills. I wrote this because I’ve developed a pet peeve while being in academia, and I believe we should collectively work to address it. I’ve been pursuing postsecondary education with the end goal of obtaining a PhD for just under a decade now, and I’ve realized a critical fact that keeps our society on the supply side from understanding fact-based science: researchers can’t explain their work.
Graduate student mentors, postdoctoral fellows, professors, and the ilk are bred to become exceptional researchers who conduct bleeding-edge research in their fields. I’ve been awed by their accolades, their work, and their contributions to society, but their ability to communicate said contributions is a real issue. Unfortunately, many graduate students I know, the graduate school environment is configured in such a way that budding researchers present themselves as perfect researchers, writers, and communicators. In this environment, many graduate students don’t feel safe exposing their mistakes.
With the presence of the powerful populist movement which rallies under Trump-ism, there have been many recent articles published which aim to develop any type of understanding concerning why people rally against facts. An article published by the Scientific American focuses upon how people debate the relevance of facts when presented with the truth. The truth is also colored by what we as consumers are exposed to, and the fact that Facebook and Google ‘customize’ your news and search feeds means we get less of an opportunity to view information that helps us learn and adapt as critical thinkers. These environmental factors, and others, make it difficult for many average citizens to filter out which statements are true, and which are lies.
What does this mean for the average researcher? If we are to fight a society which engenders myopic and/or irrelevant data, we must learn how to communicate better to the world. Particularly, we researchers must be able to communicate our work; what the problems of the world are, why they must be studied and fixed, how we attempt to do so, and why our work matters.
How do we practice this experience? I suggest a few ways we can start.
By explaining our research… to everyone.
And I mean everyone.
I’ve explained my research to churchgoers.
I’ve explained it to cashiers.
I’ve explained it to policy wonks.
I remember one fateful Halloween, I donned my costume as one-half of Les Twins, and a friend of a friend asked what I do for a living. At first, reflexively started on my elevator pitch, when my friend pulled me to the side, and chided me for my actions. “Pierce, this guy’s tipsy, and he won’t remember anything about what you said in the morning. We’re at a party, and Fetty Wap is playing in the background Why are you telling him about your research?”
“If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
I didn’t tell them that, but this quote is my own personal answer to the question. I explain to understand, and to practice my ability to communicate my work to all who care to listen. This includes the churchgoer.
Or the cashier,
Or the Lyft driver.
The only way to get better at telling our research stories is by taking our work out of our head and trying to figure out which parts of the story make sense to people who’ve never been exposed to the research in the first place. In an ideal world, you conduct the research to help the world, and potentially, so others can help you with the work. The more people who understand your work, the more likely you can help, and be helped, by the world around you.
Teach the importance of understanding and communication across diverse channels.
In our world of research, the ideal researcher excels at publishing, or will perish. To publish in peer-reviewed journals to our academic colleagues, we learn to communicate in a wordy, lengthy manner that for most folks, keeps you from understanding the point of the work at all.
We must learn how to communicate outside the halls of academia. This can happen in a wide variety of ways: while learning to publish, you might additionally try blogging. While you give research presentations, you might use the Up-Goer, which forces you to only use the ten hundred most used words in the English language. You might give presentations to your lab group, to the group members of that startup you’re a part of, or explaining your research to your mentees on off-days.
Also, instead of priming yourself for hour long speeches, it might mean trying out three-minute thesis competitions, and recording videos like the one above.
Breeding a culture of failure.
We have to fail, to succeed. As a design researcher, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from the design thinking community, it’s that failing fast is the key to making true success. You develop, you fail, you learn, then you make again, until it’s the best damn presentation you’ve ever had.
Individually, this means we must personally be alright with letting go of our ideas, and letting them out into the world. The late Energy and Resources group professor Alex Farrell had a saying I’ll paraphrase here: adequate work now, is better then better work later, is better than perfect work never.
As a community, this means we need to work to change the culture of failure. Failure shouldn’t be associated with shame, or frustration or bruised egos; we should develop safe and brave spaces intent upon shaping our communication skills, so members of the academy practice the difficult task of simplifying their complex work. Mind you, this is a struggle for me as well. When I didn’t move on to the next round of Grad Slam, my ego was a bit damaged. However, because I knew my end goal was to learn how to better communicate my work to a widespread audience. I worked to learn my lessons and cut my losses.
We must inspire the next generation of researchers to communicate, connect, and address the issues of today’s issues, We can only do that day by day, speech by speech, talk by talk.
So, what’s your vision? How do you help the world? You only have three minutes, though. Let’s see what you got.