5 things I learned about science communication events from infohackit

Postdoctoral science researcher Damian Smith recalls his experiences at EnvEast infohackit 2016 and tells us about some of the things he learned from the event.

“What on earth is infohackit?”

This was my first thought when I saw the posters calling for expressions of interest for EnvEast infohackit 2016. The adverts were aimed at PhD students in the department. Being a curious postdoctoral scientist, I asked if I could go along if there was space. It turned out there was. So I jumped on the infohackit wagon and tried to make the most of a day away from my desk and the lab.

I am a biology postdoc and spend most of my days looking at gene sequences or trying to analyse behavioural data from the experiments we conduct on fruit flies. When I figured out that in this infohackit they were going to put scientists in a room with graphic designers, I jumped at the chance. The opportunity to present science in a fun and different way was just what I wanted.

Here are 5 things I took away from the experience that have stayed with me since.

1. Try new things

In research, you can get bogged down with endless lists of important jobs you have to do to get that next publication. It’s easy to forget that there are other opportunities out there, some of which you might enjoy. I had never done anything like infohackit before. I didn’t even really know what it was at first. The fact is, it is what you make it.

We were put into groups of scientists and graphic designers and told to do whatever we wanted. That freedom was great, and my group really wanted to come up with an effective end product. We used my research to make an animation, which I can now use as an awesome movie to go alongside my publications and to show during talks. It really makes my research stand out. How many other people have professional animations in their talks?

2. Distill it down

One message. ONE!

Researchers put so much time and effort into their research that they inevitably want to tell everyone about all the details and how much hard work it was. Sadly, that’s not a good way to communicate about research. People want to hear the highlights, not the boring bits.

People want to hear the highlights, not the boring bits. I really struggled to condense 6 months’ work into one sentence. We spent a long time figuring out the one message we wanted to convey. It was the first thing we did. From there, everything was a lot easier. infohackit was an extreme case of having to distill a single message into an infographic or animation, but it’s something every scientist should do when communicating their research. Decide on your main message and hit it home. Leave out all the stuff you spent a year on getting to work.

3. Storyboard

This is a tool I had never used before, but I found it extremely useful during infohackit and have since used it for presentations, from lab meetings to international conferences.

A storyboard is a set of summary images you sketch out showing the main points of your work. It was standard practice for the animators, but I had never seen it before. Doing this early on in the process allows you to make a story flow. If it’s not quite right, shuffle things around until it fits a logical progression. I was amazed at how a story in my head didn’t work in that order when I drew it out. A little more thought and the ability to visualise it easily soon had us telling a story that captured the imagination.

4. Get there early—and make friends!

Events can be a little daunting. You turn up to a venue and probably don’t know many people there. I got there quite early by accident, but I’m glad I did. I chatted with the organiser when he had a few minutes to spare. This was a valuable opportunity because he had a big job to do that day. It was nice to get his view on the day.

I also got to chat to other participants as they filtered in so it was nice to chat to people when things were calm. I’ve come away from the day with some great contacts that I wouldn’t hesitate to get in touch with in the future.

5. Find out what the target audiences want

If you are super competitive, this is a sure way to get ahead of the competition. I’m not, but I still learned something from this. Our presentation was first and we didn’t realise we were being judged on specific criteria. One of these was collaboration.

We worked amazingly as a team during the day, but we didn’t think we needed to say that in our presentation. We knew it, and that’s all we thought mattered. Turns out they wanted to hear about that aspect of the day. We scored highly on everything else apart from collaboration. I now make sure I know as much as possible about what people expect from an end product (ok, maybe I’m a little competitive).

I learned a lot from infohackit, and had a great time doing it. I came away with great communications tools and skills to improve my own presentations in the future. If you get the chance to, do it!


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