Becoming a Vega Fellow – What I learned from my one week workshop in Leadership and Communication

Why does a researcher need to know how to motivate an elephant? Why is it so scary to talk to journalists? And why would you need a message box?

Here is a summary of the things I learned while attending the Vega Fellows training in Science Communication and Leadership at Tvärminne Zoological Station early this summer. The purpose of the workshop was to discuss and learn how to better reach out with our messages, and how to become agents of change in the world.

Leadership is not only for bosses

Just because you’re not the principal investigator of a big research project, or the director of a research center, it doesn’t mean you don’t need leadership skills. Most people associate leadership with having direct authority to lead, which is what a boss usually has. A leader without direct authority, on the other hand, does not formally have the leadership. That person takes the leadership role by showing good leadership skills, which makes people want to follow. This type of leadership is very common in the academic world. One example is taking the lead in writing an article, or putting together a research proposal.

In the workshop we learned about different ways of leading a team, and how important feedback is at all levels of the process. Giving constructive feedback is a skill that needs to be developed, but when it’s good it’s REALLY GOOD. A conclusion for me is that people working in teams should be better at giving each other constructive feedback, because it can really help us improve our writing/presenting.

Non-academics don’t care all that much about your methods…

…So don’t start explaining what you do as if you’re reading your abstract out loud. They want to hear about the results and why they are important. And then, maybe, they will want to know how it’s even possible to come to those conclusions. But usually not.

Stop the jargon

There’s really no need to say precipitation when you can say rainfall. Or benthos when you can say seafloor animals.

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Journalists are not all there to eat you alive. I think.

Many researchers have had bad experiences with journalists. My experiences have been rather mild. Usually they have misspelled my name. Once in a while they’ve misquoted me. But it’s important to understand what they are looking for in a story, and guide them to that. Usually, hard facts are not all that interesting. Instead, your experiences and thoughts around the research result is what’s interesting. Try to feed them sound bites, then they will probably not chew your arm off.

Prepare when meeting with journalists. Prepare when meeting anyone really.

It is not the journalist’s job to translate your fancy academic words into something understandable. Doing a good interview is essential to make sure the article/radio interview/tv interview turns out good. And to do that you need to come prepared with your message.

This is where the message box is helpful. It boils your article/proposal/project/idea down to four questions: Problem? Solutions? Benefits? And So what? These are the questions that interest most people. Then you need to adjust the message to the audience. You might frame the same issue differently when talking to a science journalist, compared to the local newspaper.

Changing the world as an academic doesn’t have to be naive. 

I think there’s a general feeling after some time in academia that it’s hard to have a real world impact. We create knowledge, but as you’ve published your third paper and it’s been read by less than ten people, you start to doubt your ability to actually change anything. Yes, what we do probably has some butterfly effect, moving the field forward slowly and steadily, but what if that’s not enough? Do we have time to wait for politicians to read our papers, or the papers citing our papers? A valuable lesson from the workshop is that facts alone are not enough to motivate people to change. We need stories. We need something we can relate to. We need a direction.

We need to spend less time thinking about which journal will look best on my CV, and more time thinking about the relevance of our research results in the real world. We need to always be mindful of the “so what”-question.

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Reflections

A major change for me is that I’ve become more confident that science communication is really important. I’m less bothered by the people who say that engaging in outreach will risk my career in the academic world. I’ve added an “Outreach Activities” section to my CV, including the workshops I’ve participated in, popular science articles, video’s I’ve made, and public speaking engagements, and I think it’s the most important part of my CV. Not all people would think so, but then I hope to work with the ones who do.

Already before the workshop I was thinking a lot about the “so what” question, but I was not comfortable asking anyone “so what?”, because it’s such a difficult question to answer. I remember struggling with it before defending my PhD. One of the short term changes I pledged to make at the workshop was to start asking this question to people, because it can actually be helpful. By thinking about this question, and making others think about it, I think we can advance our ability to use our research for positive change.

For the workshop we read two books: Escape from the Ivory Tower: A guide to Making your Science Matter by Nancy Baron (who was in charge of the workshop) and Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath. They were both great and I recommend reading them if you found this post interesting.

The training was done by COMPASS Scicomm and Barefoot Thinking, and I would recommend anyone who gets the chance to participate in such a training to do so.

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