Let’s face it – academia is not what it was twenty years ago. Notions of closeted researchers locked away in the lab or the library, toiling endlessly at their latest theories, have clashed spectacularly with a modern world more concerned with openness and interconnectivity than at any point in history. Academics find themselves in an unusual position: on one hand, still very much part of that old world of rigour and discipline in their daily studies, but on the other, faced with a wealth of new possibilities for sharing their discoveries with others.
Whether through technology or more traditional approaches, the advantages of getting your work noticed by a wider audience are obvious. So how can you make use of these new possibilities? Well, we think it all starts with communication. In this article, we want to take you beyond the dissertation as the typical means of academic self-expression, and show you how to start opening up your world to an audience eager to be dazzled by what you do.
- Take Every Opportunity to Practise
- Build on Your Foundations with a Social Media Channel
- Create a Blog and Website
- Mix it up with Outreach Activities
- Build a Podcast
Take Every Opportunity to Practise
Okay, okay, we know how it feels when your dear old aunt is asking you to explain your complex biomolecular work for what seems like the hundredth time, but bear with us on this one. Communication starts small, and daily life is full of opportunities to practise sharing your research with those outside the academic world. Naturally you’re proud of the complexity of what you do – you know all the angles, the voices of the critics, and those long Latinate words trip off your tongue with ease. But take a moment to remember that not everyone is in your position, and what is simple for you could be confusing or even intimidating for others. So, how can you turn these situations to your advantage.
Instead of getting frustrated by that dear old aunt, see it as a challenge and an opportunity to test your communication skills. Can you get her to understand? Just how simple do you need to make your words? Does humour help, or perhaps an analogy? If you can learn to make your research comprehensible to friends, family and even strangers, you’ll be well on your way to communicating clearly at even higher levels. Simply put, every single person you engage in natural conversation is one more person interested in your work – and potentially an ambassador for your research as well as your qualities as an individual.
Build on Your Foundations with a Social Media Channel
Love talking about your work? Then take things to the next level. Social media, when used correctly, can be one of the best ways to reach a wider audience. The number of people available to you is simply enormous, and quality content will keep them coming back for more. There are plenty of options – Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and TikTok – so choose the platform that best fits your research and personal style. Are you an art historian, a zoologist or a scientist working with visual data sets? Instagram, with its emphasis on images, might suit you better. Historian, anthropologist or philosopher looking to start a conversation? The snappier style of Twitter could help you here. One of the best things about using social media to communicate your research is that once you’ve found your own style, any of the big platforms could work for you.
As for what to talk about, well, that’s up to you. Naturally, your research should be at the heart of your content, but there are countless ways to extend this concept and give your followers plenty of interest and excitement. Stories from the lab, commentaries on iconic historical artefacts or even provocative questions from your field designed to get people talking can all go down well with your audience. Some researchers like to blend the personal with the professional, happily sharing snippets from their life alongside research-focused posts, while others use beautiful images of animals taken in the wild to complement their core posts on biology and conservation. Some even blend fashion and travel with their scientific work – we’re looking at you @dr.voysci!
Check out our previous post on research influencers for lots more inspiration!
Create a Blog and Website
In contrast to a social media channel, a blog (and by extension a website) gives you complete freedom to communicate your research on your own terms. Without any limitations on formatting, it’s up to you what you want to say and how to say it. Want to stick to a more straight-laced academic style? No problem. Eager to reach into new forms of expression? The page is yours to command.
The great advantage of a blog is that it allows you to transition smoothly from your academic writing into something new. You can start slowly, touching on subjects that you already know. Take things at your own pace, get comfortable with the process of putting your research into writing, and you’ll soon find yourself daring to stretch further. Maybe that controversial issue that always dogs your field is calling your attention, or perhaps you want to connect personal episodes to your subject. It won’t be long before you end up with a nice set of posts that you’ll feel proud of having to categorise.
With a blog under control, the next step is to build a website around it. Plenty of opportunities to communicate here – you can organise and present your research projects, contributions to papers and conferences, as well as your professional achievements. Add extra features like book or journal reviews, personal updates and opinion pieces and you’ll soon be infusing that digital space with your own unique personality.
For a great example of a simple but effective research blog, head over to notbraininscience.com to see how it’s done.
Mix it up with Outreach Activities
Outreach is a fantastic way to spread the word about your research, as well as hone your communication skills with an array of different audiences. And thanks to the many digital platforms available for setting up meetings, seminars and conferences, you can practise both in the real world and online.
One approach is to think locally. Are there schools in your area? Want to inspire future generations of researchers in your field? Why not set up a presentation or workshop to take into the classroom? Get in touch with the schools, go for a hands-on approach and really get those students involved in the world of your subject. For scientists this could mean guiding young people through a simple, practical experiment; for scholars of literature, a recital followed by a creative writing workshop. The possibilities are endless, and this approach can be scaled up for school, college and university audiences too. You’ll find your communication skills rigorously challenged by the different age levels you’re looking to impress. Depending on your subject, museums, galleries and even local businesses can also offer opportunities for hosting talks and interactive workshops, giving you access to an even wider community of listeners.
But why stop there? Go one step further and you can take your finely honed talks online, inviting audience members across multiple social media channels to come along. One strategy is to form a collective based on your research interests – we love The Maius Workshop, a prestigious band of scholars from across the world, united by their love of the Spanish Baroque. Take a look at their website for a list of talks, and draw some inspiration for your own ventures!
Build a Podcast
Podcasting continues to grow in popularity, and offers an immediate (and intimate) connection to your audience. If you’re a natural talker, you’ll be thrilled by the chance to chat about your research in your own style and pace. But communication begins even before you pick up the microphone. What do you want to call your podcast? Got ideas for logo design? A podcast can act as an extension of your public research persona, so think carefully and give it a strong identity.
Next comes content. You have the freedom here to communicate your research however you like, which is wonderful, but it can be a little intimidating at first. Starting simply is always a good idea if you’re feeling lost. Try inviting a trusted friend or colleague to a relaxed conversation – pick an issue within your research, switch on the microphones, and see where the discussion takes you. Don’t forget that you can edit the recording later, or leave it uncut if you like. Once you have several good sessions under your belt, you’ll start to get a better idea of what direction you want to take with your podcast. Perhaps you’ll become a keen interviewer of your guests, or maintain a more conversational flow from week to week.
In either case, keep things focused on your subject, and don’t be afraid to reach out to other academics you really admire. Remember that you don’t need to be in the same room as your guest to produce something interesting! Curious? Have a listen to The Research Beat for more ideas on how to position your research through audio. Our colleagues Suzzane and Jayron also do a fantastic job with The Struggling Scientists – check it out for more ideas.
So, there you have it, five ways to widen the net and start communicating your research to others more confidently and creatively. There’s a huge audience out there waiting to learn all about what you do, so what are you waiting for? Whether you start small or aim big, get on it and show them the wonders of your work!
Keep striving, researchers! ✨