Thursday, September 20, 2012

Training research fellows to communicate: What I bring to the party

Plenty of communications trainers advertise their ability to work with scientists, but it's not always easy to secure a substantive training that the scientists themselves will appreciate. Many trainers recycle the techniques they'd use with any executive. They tell researchers to strip out all the detail. Some trainers, in effect, urge them "don't be such a scientist," to echo the book of the same title. Some perpetrate myths about presentation skills. Many aren't comfortable talking to scientists in any detail, or are comfortable only with one subject area. My favorite: The trainer who announced to a roomful of foundation executives "I can train anybody but a scientist." Ouch. They sure don't see the assignment as a party.

Those approaches really don't work with the scientists in the many prestigious fellows and scholars programs for early career researchers. They're eager to communicate beyond the bench--so much so, it's often the fellows themselves who are the ones requesting communications training. They want to be taken seriously, and they want to have fun learning. They do see it as a party, but they are serious about wanting to communicate effectively. While discussing the pros and cons of hiring communications trainers for scientists, a client recently prompted me to describe the advantages I can bring to the party that is science communications training. Here's what I told her:
  1. A high comfort level working with scientists and engineers in every discipline, from astrophysics and biomedicine to economics and zoology. I want scientists in my workshops to feel at ease sharing the details of their work with the sense that the trainer understands, appreciates and respects them and their research. I gained that versatility working for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Science as communications director and consultant, and with clients like TEDMED, where I train physicians and researchers in many specialties.
  2. The ability to bridge between two highly divergent communications models, that of the scientific community and the public sphere, using hands-on training tactics. It helps that I know their default responses, and how to get past them to good communications skills. One corporate researcher said it best: “By putting us into ‘hothouse’ conditions, limiting our time and our ability to practice, you forced us to display our default behaviors, which made them apparent to us…and then we could fix them. Brilliant approach.” 
  3. A facility for working with introverted scientists. “Thank you for taking me outside my box, and thank you especially for warning us ahead of time that you were going to do that,” is typical feedback from an introverted scientist participant. I incorporate large- and small-group work and other methods  to allow both introverts and extroverts to shine in the workshop.
  4. Enthusiasm for the work of scientists and a strong belief that they can communicate about their research. Far from thinking they're untrainable, I enjoy working with them, and have trained thousands of academic, government and corporate researchers.
  5. Data-based communications training, to show scientist trainees that communicating and public speaking advice has its basis in research, from audience attention spans to speaking speeds and the psychology of nervous speakers.
  6. The smarts to take time with it: I have had a few clients, hoping to save time and money, who have asked me to teach a large group of scientists how to communicate with the public in an hour or two, or in a timeframe that would allow about 1.5 minutes of one-on-one time per person. That approach ignores who's being trained: Intelligent people who ask questions for a living, particularly when they are confronted with new and unfamiliar skills they find troublesome. I strive for more realistic time constraints for training them.
  7. Smart resources for smart people: When I train groups, every participant gets an email with links to takeaway and reference materials they can use again and again. Among the resources for scientists are posts from my blog The Eloquent Woman, where I feature a series called "Speaking Science," on new or interesting data about public speaking as well as posts about smart communications for scientists.
  8. Humor and a lively approach to training. Even in large groups, all participants in my training sessions have frequent opportunities to learn and try new ideas, ask questions and receive feedback. Slides and lecturing are kept to a minimum. Because some of the skills to be learned or short timeframes can feel stressful to some participants, I use humor to make the process enjoyable as well as educational. 
  9. The ability and credibility needed to call scientist trainees on their communications missteps, helping them to avoid overstatements, omissions of fact and other mistakes commonly made when attempting to translate from the technical. Far from “dumbing down” details, my scientific learn how—and where—to put details to use. If we're doing a media training, they learn to stop blaming the reporters for misquotes and instead learn how to manage an interview so it turns out accurate, while respecting the reporting process.
  10. A strong understanding of what works in communicating the details of scientific research, from the viewpoint of the nation’s top research journals and scientific meetings. I can help scientists speak about basic methodology or the most controversial areas of their fields.
Training research fellows to communicate is among my favorite types of work. They're enthusiastic and energetic, and they haven't yet learned too many bad habits in presentation and public speaking skills. Clients like these have sought out my workshops to get their scientific fellows focused and ready to do everything from presenting research to legislators to giving public talks at science cafes:
Find out more about my training services for scientists and technical experts at all levels and what my clients and trainees say about the experience. I have well-planned, time-tested workshop formats for full-day and half-day communications training sessions, which of course can be customized to your group's needs.Want to get your own fellows training party started? Email me at info[at]dontgetcaught[dot]biz for more information.

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