My past best practices posts have focused on getting to know your audience and using questions to help create a conversation. But, what the heck should you talk about to people? I have yet to address creating a message. (Hey, I never said the posts would be in a logical order…)
Best practice number 3: Make it thematic.
One of the scariest questions to get asked is often “So what do you study?”. Ugh. Really? Where do I start?
The best way to get yourself going is find the big picture! You may be in the depths of analyzing DNA from bird blood, but is that the point of your research? Probably not. The big picture may often be the same as the first or last paragraphs of your journal article. Thinking about it that way can make it easier to address a new audience.
Theme vs Topic: A theme and a topic are very different. Your research topic might be: hybridization of plants along the Rocky Mountains. Your research theme is often more broad and sometimes includes the answer to your research. A theme could be: Pollination by hummingbirds facilitates hybridization of plants in the Rocky Mountains. Notice also how the theme includes a VERB and is a more complete thought than a topic. Your theme can be even more broad like: Plant-animal interactions influence the evolution of new species. This theme can apply to topics outside of your research project.
Why be thematic? When you walk away from an interaction with a member of the public, whether it is a chat on the street or a public talk, you should aim for at least one big take away. Of course they may come away with a variety of ideas and thoughts, but if you can at least get them to leave with your theme, that’s great! By using a theme (with a verb!) they can come away with a complete idea. So instead of coming away with, “Joe studies plants in the Rocky Mountains” they’ll hopefully come away with “The hummingbirds interact with the flowers to create new species”. That theme provides a new viewpoint for future scientific stories they hear.
Be flexible. As a museum educator, I’ve learned that flexibility is crucial! I’ll often start an interaction with the hope of connecting the visitor to a certain theme, but instead they want to ask about something totally different. The same thing happens when researchers discuss their work. First step is to not panic! You’re going to create a more meaningful interaction if you connect with people based on their inherent interests. It may even help to use some questions to open up your conversation so that you can guide the conversation to their interests from the start. For example, my graduate school research was not necessarily focused on climate change, but people often asked me about the role it may play in the tropics. So I would then switch to talking about shifts in animal and plant ranges across elevation with climate change. Always good to have a back-up plan.
This best practice may seem very straightforward to you, but is often more complex in practice than it seems. I really think that finding a theme yet remaining flexible to other interests will make your science communication the best!
Try it out: Write down at least 3 themes that relate to your past or present research. Remember, include a verb to make it thematic!