Speaking Outside Your Field: Having an Attitude

June 20, 2017

The first impression at a poster contest, as either the presenter or the listener, is a big deal. Granted, you have a lot of chances to make first impressions, but after spending some time listening at the Undergraduate Research Poster Contest, I saw some really bad and really good first impressions. Although, for the sake of this piece, I am seriously exaggerating both situations.

For example, let’s start with the really good:

Attendee (walking up to poster presenter): “Hi, this looks interesting. Can you tell me about your research?”

Presenter: “It is interesting and I will tell you about it. But let me ask you some questions first, but no more than three. Do you know what a substitution reaction is?”

Based on the attendee’s answers, the presenter adjusted how she spoke about the research at a level the attendee understood.

And now, let’s go with the really bad:

Attendee (walking up to the poster presenter): “This I don’t understand at all. It looks hard.”

Presenter: “Oh, it is. Let me tell you about it.”

The presenter, not really sure why the attendee came up to the poster in the first place, gives a brief summation of the research. The attendee doesn’t really listen as the information is not what she was interested in.

Being the clever reader you are, you have noted in the good example that both the attendee and the presenter were good. In the bad example, both the attendee and the presenter made poor choices. In the good example, both people did their jobs. But in the bad one, neither did.

So, let’s take a moment to review those jobs, shall we?

There is a two-way street to communication. The speaker has three jobs:

  • Decide what information the speaker wants people to know.
  • Understand your audience’s needs.
  • Present the information in the clearest and most interesting way for your audience.

The listener has two jobs:

  • Help the speaker identify why you are listening.
  • Focus on the speaker’s presentation.

It is the speaker’s job to present the information to the listener so the listener understands. It is the listener’s job to focus on the speaker and give the speaker a chance to convey his/her message. If either side fails to do the job, the entire conversation falls apart.

People know this though, and usually without having to read a blog about it, so what is it about a conversation between two people of different fields that can cause so much trouble?

I believe it is because this situation is unusual. When we talk to people, even people we don’t know, there is obviously something in common. Think about when you are walking around the block and you see a neighbor. You both may have entirely different lives, but you live in the same neighborhood and that fact can provide a frame of reference for you both to start a conversation.

When you have a multidiscipline research event, especially one where not everyone is a researcher, it is challenging to find a frame of reference. As a poster presenter, when someone comes up to your poster, you have no way of knowing if the other person is another presenter who stepped away from his poster, a friend of another presenter, or someone else.

So, the first thing both sides need to do is establish common ground. This is why the first example works so well. The attendee immediately establishes that the poster looks interesting, so the common ground is the research. However, an interest in the research does not mean an understanding of the research. So, that’s why the presenter asks some questions to determine the attendee’s understanding. Sure, it takes the presenter a lot of work to figure out what questions to ask and how to present the research based on the answers to those questions, but it is well worth the time.

And although it takes a bit more time, an attendee should offer some reason for walking up to a poster other than “it looks hard.” Most people do not walk up to something they don’t understand if there are choices of things to see that they do understand, so make it clear what it was about the poster that appealed to you, even if it’s only the colors on one of the graphs. Something attracted you to the poster and if you want to talk about that, you need to let the poster presenter know what that something is.

For the presenters, generally speaking, explaining your research to someone outside your field requires you to:

First, say what it is:

Seriously, even if you keep it as simple as “I am looking at [insert research topic here].” Don’t make your listener wait to hear what it is you are working on! Open with it.

Second, say why it is interesting:

The key word here is “interesting”, not practical or useful. Although, if your research is practical or useful, you should certainly mention it. But you got into this line of research because it was interesting to you (or at least I hope you did), so help your listener join you in that interest. Then, mention the practical application.

Third, tell a story about the research:

When you write an article or paper, you usually have a formula to follow. You do not need to follow that formula when you are speaking. In fact, I recommend that you do not use that formula when speaking. You understand your research better than anyone. While it is a good idea to have a pat presentation of your research, you need to be open to questions and listeners who understand more/less than you thought or who want to talk about something specific about your research. Be ready to have a real conversation about your research. It will be much more fun.

Lastly, do not use jargon:

Or, of you must, be ready to define it. For example, in journalism, a “squib” is a short news story. However, to some people, a “squib” is a witty, satirical story. But, to most people, it is a Harry Potter reference to a non-magical child born to wizards. So, don’t assume your definition of a word is the only correct definition of that word.

After the poster itself, the conversation between an attendee and a presenter is the most important part of getting your research out into the world. Spending as much time thinking through how you are going to talk about your research to a variety of people is just as important as the time you spend on the poster.

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