Ten tips for public engagement

Last week I attended the Public Engagement with Research Summer School at TORCH (the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities). The weeklong series of workshops and talks on how to engage people beyond the academy with academic research was really fun and informative. I came away with lots of ideas and a toolkit of practical advice to make them happen. Here are some highlights of what I learnt.

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Photo of dinosaur in Oxford Natural History Museum by Alan under Creative Commons license

1. Public engagement should benefit the researcher…

This was both the most obvious and the most surprising point for me. I’d previously had it in my head that public engagement was a good thing to do, without being able to articulate why. Start with answering the ‘Why’ question. Reasons could include changing public perceptions of an issue, building a relationship with a partner organisation, or developing your skills.

2. …and benefit the people you’re engaging

Think about what makes your research interesting to other people and what impact you’d like to have (apparently enjoyment counts as impact!). The best public engagement should be non-hierarchical. It’s not about you as the researcher imparting knowledge to people; you should be able to learn from each other.

3. Think about your audience

We were encouraged to think beyond a homogeneous ‘general public’ and to think about which specific communities and groups might be interested in our research. Who you want to engage will shape how you choose to engage them and the format. Where possible, collaborate with your intended audience, so that you can ensure the event meets their needs. It also makes it far more likely that people will come.

4. Making things more accessible is good for everyone

The summer school included a great session on making our public engagement activities accessible to audiences with disabilities. One of the speakers made the great point that making things more accessible makes it more engaging for everyone, which I think is also applicable to a broader sense of access. As academics I think it’s easy for us to slip into patterns of how things are done (like reading your written conference paper out loud). But we could all do with thinking about how we become more engaging communicators and the most creative ways to present our ideas.

5. Keep track of your time

This applies both on a project management level of your public engagement activity and general life advice. Planning, carrying out and evaluating a great public engagement activity takes time. As PhD students we are very busy and juggling multiple commitments. So it’s really important to choose what you do wisely.

6. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel

A good piece of advice we were given was to make the most of existing infrastructure for public engagement, so you can focus on content. TORCH advertises lots of opportunities on its website, such as giving a short talk at one of the Ashmolean’s LiveFriday nights. Also, if you want to communicate your research in schools, the Brilliant Club run a great programme.

7. Content is key

It was great to hear from some media and heritage partners about how much they value academics because we can produce great content that’s well-written, reliable and new. Also, while it’s easy to get distracted by all these exciting opportunities, you have to do your research to communicate it.

8. You don’t have to be an extrovert

The thought of doing a piece to camera or presiding at a massive event fills me with dread. Thankfully, there are a lot of different ways to engage with the public, so you can develop existing skills as well as stepping outside your comfort zone. I’m most confident communicating in writing, so that seems like a good place for me to start!

9. Be concise

In the session on pitching to radio, the producer gave us the sobering advice that our press release had to grab the reader in the first 10 words. But my thesis will be 100,000! Distilling the most important and exciting ideas from our research is a useful exercise in itself.

10. Public engagement can take you in new career directions

One of the best things about the summer school was hearing from public engagement professionals with PhDs who obviously love their jobs. In many cases, getting involved with public engagement had led to other career opportunities. Something I took away from the week that I didn’t expect was discovering that, even if academia doesn’t work out for me, there are other paths that still involve communicating research to people.

The AHRC-TORCH Public Engagement with Research Summer School takes place every year and is open to PhD students at Oxford, Cambridge and the Open University (and it’s free to attend!). I’d urge you to apply for it next year if you can – more info here.

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