Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Beyond the Elevator Speech
During fieldwork, I've frequently come into contact with the public. I've been approached by local fishermen, land managers, tourists, and various bystanders who ask what I'm doing and why. I always take the time to talk to them and explain the importance of my work. And I always answer carefully because you never know when the questioner might be someone of influence (member of Congress, local politician, land owner), which has happened to colleagues. I'm especially circumspect if they happen to be armed (which has occurred to me a few times).
I was confident about myself, but wondered about my research group. So a number of years ago I decided to test them to see what they might say to a member of the public about our work. I routinely held lab meetings and required semi-annual progress reports by group members. Each person (student, technician, post-doc) would get up and give a short presentation about their project, and then I and other team members would ask questions or provide constructive criticism. At one of these progress reviews, I told the group that I wanted to do something slightly different. After the last person's presentation, I said, "OK. You've explained your work in terms that we understand. I want you to pretend that you are out in the marsh doing your research and a local fisherman has stopped you and asked what you are doing. How would you explain your work in everyday language?"
Well, you can probably guess what happened. If you read the last post, you may have guessed that everyone proceeded to spout off an incomprehensible explanation, even more convoluted and abstruse than their scientific presentation. It was as if the challenge of explaining things to a non-specialist caused a brain malfunction. This outcome turned out to be highly entertaining, and before long, we were all in stitches. The succeeding speakers, who had laughed uproariously at the first person's attempt, did no better. The more they tried to explain, the worse it got.
Despite the hilarity, I was horrified at what my team might be saying to members of the public they encountered in the course of their work. At the end of the meeting, I told the group that I wanted them to think about this and by the next progress review to have a short, simple explanation of their work to present to the group.
I could see that they all expected a repeat of the first exercise: to stand up and say a couple of sentences. They would be ready for that...no problem. So I came up with a slightly different plan. I enlisted the help of one of the administrative staff, a woman who agreed to dress up and act like a local fisherwoman, which would create a more realistic situation. When the next progress meeting convened, I asked the group if they had their speeches ready. They all eagerly responded that they were ready and confident. I told them that I had invited a local fisherwoman to help with the exercise. A few of them looked stunned, but soon began laughing when they saw it was a staff member.
However, she played her part perfectly.
When the first person started explaining their project on sea-level rise, she immediately interrupted and said she did not understand what sea-level rise was. Did they mean vitamin C? She proceeded to ask questions of each speaker, forcing them to explain unfamiliar terms and asking why they were studying those particular topics. She soon had everyone flustered and stammering. It was another eye-opening experience. Whereas the first exercise revealed the lack of a good elevator speech, the second one showed that just having a canned elevator speech is not sufficient in a real world situation, with real people who ask difficult questions.
Some of my research group really liked the exercise and went on to become quite good at explaining their science to lay audiences. Others were less enthusiastic and did not seem to understand the reason or the need for the exercise. My goal was to get them (and me) to start looking at our research from an outsider's viewpoint and how best to explain it. Turns out, it is very difficult to forget what we know about a topic and see it through the eyes of the non-expert.
How good are you at explaining your work? How do you know? A good place to start is with your friends and family (assuming they are not in science). You can not only practice on them, you can ask for their feedback as to how you are doing. At family gatherings or similar events, you will run into people who will ask what you've been doing lately. You can then try out your elevator speech, tailored for the non-specialist. If your speech is short and intriguing, it will stimulate questions. With experience, you'll learn what works and what doesn't. You'll eventually develop responses appropriate for different situations and audiences.
Then, when you run into that Important Scientist or Potential Future Employer at a conference and she asks you about your work, you will know exactly what to say.