Thinking Together

We’ve talked a lot about presenting research here at the Brackenridge. Unsurprisingly, it’s really difficult. I remember a couple weeks ago sitting down with my family for dinner (one of the nicer aspects of quarantine, to be sure) where I was asked what I had done that day for my research project. The question was more specific than what the big ideas behind my entire proposal were: my family wanted to know what I had specifically done that day. Interestingly enough for me, but somewhat unfortunately for them, I had finished some reading on a niche topic related to my overall work that was swimming in jargon and convoluted in background knowledge. The bearing on my main topic was still important, and it did say some interesting stuff with respect to the larger themes at play. So, naturally, I tried to jump into the ideas from this reading to talk about which ones had excited me and tell my family about those. Long story short, this “conversation” turned into an unstructured, rambling monologue, and my family understandably found more entertainment in the food than in my chaotic narration.

Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for rambling to yourself every now and then. An initial reaction to a new reading or unforeseen trend in the data doesn’t provide the same insight as sustained analysis, but the stream-of-consciousness thinking you get when you encounter something of interest or excitement will always contain important nuggets of truth for progressing with your research. Nevertheless, I think the “communication” with my family over dinner wasn’t the right place for performing that exercise. The mistake I made was diving immediately into the most complex parts of my research and expecting my family to care about what I was saying, let alone start with ideas I knew they were familiar with.

I don’t mean to sell myself short since I did do some backtracking during that dinner to clarify the mess of my story and make it more relatable. But the small train wreck of my explanation seemed to me the perfect example of why communicating research is such an important skill and how it can be improved.

For example, one of the presentation strategies we looked at this past week was using metaphors to unpack complicated ideas to a broader audience. Delivering on a good metaphor, I think, has to accomplish two distinct things about capturing the imagination of the audience. For one, you’ve got to speak to them on terms they understand, and, secondly, it has to be about ideas they care about. It sounds obvious, but it’s easier said than done.

Being understandable is crucial yet elusive because you can’t simply memorize one little prepped snippet about the research and use that on everyone. Having a little snippet comes in handy when you’re on the go and you’re just trying to get the gist of your project across, but different people will want to hear different levels of detail. So you’ve got to adapt: coming up with new routes of storytelling is the key, and although that means you need to think on the spot, it shouldn’t be the easy way out of thinking out loud to yourself (like I did with my family). Communication is a reciprocal process, and there’s no reciprocation possible when you force too much new information together into one talk. Your audience won’t be able to follow along and you’ll leave them disinterested in something you think is important.

Similarly to, and in many ways because of, the importance of being understandable, the listeners have to care about your topic. This one seems easier to me since there’s always a good reason behind your research – you wouldn’t have started and stayed committed to it if you didn’t find some element of it fascinating. The trick is demonstrating the significance of your work to the people listening. Whether the project is geared to a manifestly practical problem that most people recognize and already have a sense of urgency about, or if its tailored to a smaller question that mostly draws attention from experts in your field, making your audience care about your topic comes down to connecting it with other problems they find interesting. In fact, framing a metaphor turns on making compelling stories – driven by unresolved conflict – that put the listener on terms they can understand, in a language they know how to speak.

So speaking through metaphors doesn’t encapsulate the whole story of communicating skillfully since its insufficient on its own. To make a successful metaphor and grab your audience’s attention, you need to deliver on (1) an understandable subject matter with (2) clear standards of meaning and success that matter to the audience. It’s a lot like being a salesperson, but in some ways even harder. Think about it: you have to capture the interest of your listeners and justify your approach to solving a problem they may not have heard of until now. At least most business meetings are about a common subject both parties already care about! I can tell you the good news is that you can practice with your family since they are familiar with your interests – it’s just a matter of being more interesting than the food at dinner.

Some pleasure reading I’m trying to get through this summer — I saw a couple people posting about how they love to hike and the outdoors in general.

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