STP reflections | Public engagement

Over the past 2 years on the STP and past 2 weeks particularly, I’ve done lots of outreach and engagement activities with students/parent/teachers from all sorts of backgrounds. On June 25th I attended the South West Big Bang Fair, July 1st I attended a talk on encouraging young scientists to join the profession at the South West HCS conference and 3rd July I gave a talk at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust work observation week about careers in healthcare science.

I think it’s fair to say that all of these experiences gave me a different aspect on the best approaches to talking to different people about science and engaging with them about careers. So, I thought I could share some of the key points I’ve learned.

  1. Keep it simple: kids have a short attention span and low tolerance for listening to things they don’t understand. Especially in an environment where there’s lots of stuff going on. On more than one occasion I was talking to kids at the big bang fair who had one eye on me and one eye on the sweets on the table behind me. It was hard to think of one take-home message for such a wide age range, but this is a really important thing to try to do. Because no-one is going to be able to take in all the information you want to get across. I started by asking what jobs they knew of in a hospital and got the standard response of “doctors”, “nurses” etc. etc. After giving them my healthcare science spiel, before any of them left I asked: “the next time someone asks you what kind of jobs there are in a hospital, what’s the first answer you’re going to give?”. If I got a response of “scientist!” I knew I’d got my message across.
  2. Tell a story: Everyone loves a story. I’m a prime example- it takes me weeks (ok fine, months) to read a non-fiction book, but give me a juicy storyline and some interesting characters-I can finish that in days. People find it much more engaging if you can get the information across in the form of a story. For example, rather than saying: “patients come to the clinic to have their blood taken, which is then taken to the lab for the DNA to be extracted”, try: “Charlie is a patient with a rare genetic condition. After having a blood sample taken by Dr Robins, the blood is transported to the lab where the lab technicians extract the DNA”. Sounds a little more engaging?
  3. Have a wow fact: One thing I’ve found is that on top of having a take-home message, kids (and most people, in fact) are likely to remember something cool/exciting/funny/gross- especially if it can be explained in one sentence. If they can remember that fact, there’s a chance they’ll remember who told them it and what they do. 
  4. Be passionate and have fun: I find that audiences tend to reflect the object of their attention. If a speaker sounds bored and uninterested, so are the audience. If they’re excited and enthusiastic, the audience is too. And at least if you’re enjoying yourself, it’s a good experience for you, and if all else fails, if you’re talking passionately about something they’ll probably feel too bad to walk away whilst you’re in the middle of a sentence! 
  5. Fake it ‘til you make it: Confident speakers are always the most engaging. But, people rarely start out with loads of confidence, it’s built over time and experience. Don’t beat yourself up for not feeling more confident about outreach and speaking with the public- you’ll get there. You just have to act confident, and eventually, you’ll realise you’re not acting anymore. Sometimes I find this actually happens throughout a talk- I start off nervous and even a little shaky, but as I get into it I find my flow and my voice a bit more and I realise I’m not as nervous.
  6. Finally, don’t patronise people: I read something online that I really liked recently: to treat people like they’re smarter than you, just less informed on this specific topic. Often when speaking to groups of people, or even 1:1, it’s hard to get a feel for their level of understanding. Ask lots of questions and explain things in a way that doesn’t belittle the knowledge the audience do/do not have. 

These are just some things I’ve picked up over the past 2 years and thought I could share them as some food for thought for your next outreach/public engagement activity. If anyone else has any top tips or thoughts on public engagement feel free to get in touch or leave a comment!

Author: Jes

I am a trainee clinical bioinformatician working at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust. I am passionate about increasing awareness and discussion about healthcare science and particularly the routes into the field.

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