The Art & Science of Communication

This week UWE put on a two-day intensive course for researchers on the topic of communication. The intention behind this was to go beyond a regular ‘presentation skills’ course, more to have a nose under the bonnet of communication to examine the fundamental principles that could be used to craft a range of effective messages suited to the purpose at hand. Researchers find it challenging to find ways of engaging others in the research they do for fear of losing its academic rigour.

I brought in Piero Vitelli from Island 41 to shape the course into something of real substance that would be of value to the participants. Piero used the analogy of the course being a bit like Sachertorte, an incredibly rich and calorie packed chocolate cake to describe the deliberate attempt to put a lot of content into the two days.

Speaking of packing content or data into a short space of time, here’s a clip that should demonstrate that it doesn’t matter how complicated your data is, it is important to make it accessible.

Over the two days we set out to try and understand the secret behind impactful, engaging communication of research.

The following notes summarising the course are reproduced here with permission from Piero.

The basic model of communication we put forward was as follows:

comms model

More often than not, when we set about preparing a piece of communication we pay too little attention to the upper half of the pyramid, we focus on the content; the “what” of our communication.

We spent a lot of time looking at the “why” of our communication or in other words, what is behind our motivation to tell others about our research, what are our values, what do we stand for. I’ve written about this sort of thing before, it comes down to asking yourself “why”. This then informs “how” we might go about delivering the content.

Much of the rest of the course was about looking at the techniques and/or qualities of effective communication– getting into the mechanics of it all.

The other major talking point of the course was around the issue of confidence. Everyone talks about the need to feel more confident when giving presentations and most people assume that others have more confidence than they. It’s a weird thing but a presenter’s job is not to feel comfortable but to give every fibre of their being to the audience, to forget how uncomfortable it feels.

Only others can give confidence because it is, after all, about being “with trust” (latin:- Con fidere), so literally only others can have trust in you. You can see this demonstrated in this clip featuring Paul Simon playing a concert in Toronto when he invites a fan on stage (named Rayna) to play the song she requested (“Duncan”) because it was the one she learned to play guitar on… watch how Paul Simon has trust in her and provides the encouragement.

How ‘confidence’ really works?

Some last thoughts, I really enjoyed the stories, the metaphors and the analogies used by various folks throughout the two days. I was amazed by the risks that the participants took in trying things out to explain, illuminate, highlight or inspire about research to bring things to life. Here’s one picture that springs to mind: what you see (the number 6, the maths symbol sigma or the number 9) all depends on your perspective…

Is it a six, a nine or a sigma? - depends!

Is it a six, a nine or a sigma? – depends!

Further resources

The following publication is actually a piece of research about the art of presentations among public interest professionals. It is equally as relevant to academia and has some of the best advice contained within around “chunking”, taking audiences on a journey from A->B, considerations about the use of visual aids etc. And it’s free.

Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes (free download)


A blog site about all things presentation related. It’s a must read…

Presentation Zen


Image Attribution

Sachertorte by _chris_st available from Flickr at under a creative commons 2.0 licence. Full details

Perfect Posters! A guide for researchers

The perfect poster guaranteed!

The perfect poster guaranteed!

This week I ran a workshop at UWE on the topic of putting together posters for the purpose of presenting research at conferences. I deliberately called this “Perfect Posters” because I had a sneaking suspicion that it might draw folks in and it did! So I began by telling the researchers that there probably isn’t such a thing as a perfect poster, there is no ‘right way’ or ‘wrong way’, just a range of approaches that are more effective than others at communicating the intended message.

Researchers are often confused about what posters are for, so I spent some time discussing, debating and/or arguing about what they are & why conferences increasingly have them as part of a programme.

Posters are a way of presenting one or two central themes of your work using images and text with the objective of encouraging conference attendees to enter into a dialogue with you about your research. It is hard enough to achieve this in an ideal setting but the additional challenge for poster presentations are that they are often held in less than ideal conditions. It was also discussed at some length what they are not, they are not simply a reorganisation of a journal article onto one sheet of paper, they are not the same as an oral presentation. It requires a different way of thinking and, honestly, a lot of preparation time in order to put one together.

Here is an audiocast of the main themes contained in the prezi (which is embedded below). I hope you find it useful.

Here is the prezi I used, embedded below.

The rest of the session was covering hints and tips for putting together posters, here are those tips: –

1) Think about your purpose. What are you trying to achieve? Try to avoid presenting everything that you have done, think of a take home message and build from there.

2) Think about your audience. It is unlikely that your audience will be all in the exact same area of research as you, it more likely that some will be in broadly the same area, some will be in related areas and some will be non specialist. This means think about the language and/or jargon that you use or rather do NOT use. Use of plain language is not the same as dumbing down, if noone understands your research, how will it be useful??

3) Think about your space. Find out how big your display area will be before you start to put the poster together! An obvious tip perhaps but one often ignored.

4) Think about pictures. The saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words” so consider the use of images, diagrams, photographs that can give the reader information better than reading lines of text.

5) Think about text size. Bigger is better! A poster is not the same as reading from a page, it is read from a distance so text needs to be increased accordingly.

6) Think about using less verbiage. Think back to your central message, edit, edit, edit and then edit some more. If anything doesn’t back up the central message then dump it.

7) Think about colour. Some colour is good, it can help to orient the reader around your poster and make things stand out. BUT be careful, many posters can be hindered by garish colour schemes!

8) Think about where to place different sections in your poster. Use headings to help guide the reader. Popular convention appears to be to arrange images and words in the same format as a magazine article, broadly in columns. However there is no rule that states you have to follow this convention, organise your poster in a way that maximises impact but make sure that the reader is left in no doubt of where to look, you need to provide a visual grammar so to speak.

9) Think about titles. Academic convention seems to be that the longer a title is, the more impressive it is. In fact, many go as far as inserting a colon into the title so that it can be made even longer! Think about your purpose, you want to attract people to read your poster and talk to you, not run a mile from an incomprehensible title, so keep it short, intriguing and inviting.

10) Think about doing the small things. Can you take a handout of your poster and/or a relevant research article that explains something in more detail to give to interested people. It will free up your poster to focus on the main message without getting bogged down. Be enthusiastic about your research, no matter how many times you have to explain the same thing. It matters.

These are just a few tips to be going on with, I dipped into a few resources to help me with this:-

Creating effective poster presentations – George Hess, Kathryn Tosney & Leon Ligel

How do I create an effective scientific poster? – Bandwidth

Preparing Scientific Illustrations: A guide to better posters, presentations and publications – Mary Helen Briscoe

P.s. I also trawled Google Images for some examples of research posters which I now include below. I shall call this, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly”. You can decide for yourself which ones are which, okay?

Authentic Leadership

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen CC BY-NC 2.0

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen  CC BY-NC 2.0

This week I contributed to a “learning lunch” for colleagues here at UWE. The topic for this episode is authentic leadership. It’s a re-run of a leadership insight I delivered a couple of years back on a course entitled “Leadership in Action”. This is a Vitae course offered to researchers (both students and staff) to allow them the time/freedom/space to practice leadership in a variety of settings. This particular course was one sponsored by the South West & Wales regional hub of Vitae.

I’ve written about this sort of thing before in the context of communication of research, being able to explain the “why” of research is a valuable thing in my view and key to good communication.

Below is a summary of what I said about authentic leadership.

Much of the insight has been taken from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and his TED talk based on the same topic..

I ended the segment by showing my favourite TED talk featuring Benjamin Zander who, for me at least, is the epitome of authentic leadership in action.

Image Attribution

Simon Sinek: Start with why by marcoderksen available at under a creative commons 2.0 licence. Full details

Residential Gradschool at Buckland Hall 2013

Buckland Hall, July 2013

Buckland Hall, July 2013

At the beginning of July, Plymouth University in collaboration with UWE, Bristol put on a four day residential course for doctoral researchers at the fabulous Buckland Hall in the Brecon Beacons. This course is designed to give researchers the time and space to reflect on their development to date and to spend time in the company of other researchers thinking about where their research might take them. The overall theme of the course was “Building a reputation as a researcher”. Running through the programme were several topics that underpin this; communication of research, collaboration with others and understanding what drives you as a researcher.

Here is an outline programme that gives a flavour of what we were doing.

A big part of the success of this event is the venue itself, it really does make a difference to how the participants react. An interesting venue historically, Buckland Hall is now operated as a retreat/wedding venue. What’s great about it is that with groups the size that we have (36 researchers and a team of around 8 staff) you get exclusive use. The staff are brilliant achieving the seemingly impossible balance between being terribly efficient, catering for all your needs yet being almost out of sight the entire stay. As a course organiser I can’t tell you how valuable that is! The other feature of this venue is the ethos, the place runs on trust – trust bar, no room keys, treat the place as your own etc. and the organic vegetarian cuisine.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Having the right venue is one thing but you have to come up with a programme that is right for your participants. We’ve a lot of experience running these type of courses (since 2003 in fact) and many of them have been based on the renowned Vitae GRADSchool model.

Over the past few years we have been hacking the format in part because of the diverse nature of our participants who on average tend to be older, international and from a wide range of disciplines. A further success factor in a course like this is a good balance of facilitators who understand doctoral researchers and their research.


Course team L-R Julia Crocker, Chris Russell, Helen Frisby, Mandy Burns, Neil Willey and Sarah Kearns


The majority of the participants on this course arrived on the coach that we laid on (from Plymouth via Bristol). No sooner than they had arrived then they were faced with me introducing them to the next four days. Here’s that slideshow.

Day 1. Getting to know you.

Like most courses you go on, the majority of your fellow participants are not known to you so inevitably there is a need to spend some time ingratiating yourself with others. We achieved this by doing three basic things; 1) running an icebreaker (building a giraffe), 2) establishing ‘home’ groups and 3) running an interview workshop.

The idea behind the interview workshop, given the demographic of the participants, was to run it as a familiarisation of each others research exercise rather than a full on “this is how you perform at interviews”. I think that this worked, some folks certainly appreciated the chance to practice talking about their research and others found it fascinating to observe others being interviewed.

Day 2. Connecting with others

There were three main things covered on the second day, some grounding principles in communicating research (start with why), establishing buddy pairs and the collaboration challenge.

I started out the day by showing a short TED talk by Steven Addis. The take home message from this wasn’t about photography but rather to become aware of how our perspectives on things change over time and that we should be proactive in thinking about where it takes us.

I then spoke about communicating research and the need to be clear about the “why” of your research, that it is important to be able to make your work accessible and that the easiest way to do that was to use stories. Simon Sinek featured heavily in my presentation because I think his model of communication works just as well for academic researchers. Here’s the slides I used to support this session:

Along with focussing on the why I also made the assertion that “Storytelling is everything“. A video that helps convey that is by Scott Berkun who is talking about a fast paced presentation format called “Ignite” (a derivative of Pecha Kucha).

We followed this session by borrowing an idea from the Vitae Leadership in Action course, to use each other as sources of feedback in mentoring or “buddy” pairs. Chris Russell facilitated this session using, among other things, the GROW coaching model.

The afternoon session was facilitated by Neil Willey who is an experienced researcher who has and is working on a number of large collaborative research projects. Participants used the statements they generated in the morning to propose a research project involving multiple discplines.

Day 3. Motivations and communicating in an accessible way

There was a change of pace on the third day of the course to something more introspective. It was known that tackling the subject of motivations and values is risky which presents a difficulty in how to pitch it to a diverse audience. For me it was important to explore for the following reasons; reconnecting with your motivation to follow a research path is beneficial during a doctorate when things aren’t going so well, it is also good to understand “what feeds your soul” when thinking about future career choices. I also believe that it is good to recognise why you do what you do (helps the communication thing!).

I talked about a model from Stephen R. Covey’s book The seven habits of highly effective people which is taken from the first habit “be proactive”.

The model is illustrated was the Circle of Concern vs the Circle of Influence.

We spent some time introducing the concept of Social Enterprise to set up the session on the final day.  This dovetails neatly with the exploration of motivations and values and also opens up a horizon for researchers that they may not have considered before. Here’s a few resources that cover what I had to say.

Facts and figures about social enterprise in the UK

The concept of social entrepreneurship – tackling challenges across the globe

Why social enterprise makes sense.

The 2 minute thesis

In the afternoon we changed gear and Sarah Kearns handed the groups a video camera with only one instruction: Go away and draft, rehearse and record your thesis in a 2 minute presentation.

Day 4. Looking to the future

The final day was all about how you could use your skills developed as a researcher in the future maybe outside of academic research.

The day started with a little bit of motivation courtesy of the Do Lectures – The Path of a doer

The common good

This session is aimed at raising awareness of social enterprise, a different way of doing business, for researchers. It is a case study that I, with the help of two colleagues Paul Toombs and Janet Wilkinson, authored back in 2010 and made available nationally through Vitae. The thinking behind this is that there are many attributes shared by social entrepreneurs and researchers; both are passionate problem solvers, both are motivated by making a difference, both are extremely resilient to challenges and hurdles. I used the following slides to introduce the session.

Some hints and tips about running a social enterprise…

As ever, the participants on the course generated some fantastic ideas and developed them into some serious proposals.

Final thoughts and further resources



Simon Sinek – Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action

Robert Ashton – How to be a social entrepreneur, make money and change the world

Robert Dunn & Chris Durkin – Social entrepreneurship: A skills approach

Muhammed Yunus – Creating a world without poverty: Social business and the future of capitalism

Jorgen Wolff – Creativity now: Get inspired, create ideas and make them happen!

John Elkington and Pamela Hartigan – The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World

Bobette Buster – Do Story: How to tell your story so the world listens

Robert Poynton – Do Improvise: Less push. More pause. Better results. A new approach to work (and life)

Mark Shayler – Do Disrupt: Change the status quo or become it

Leadership in Action – The Prequel #LiA

This time next week I will be one of the facilitators on a course entitled “Leadership in Action”. This is a version of the Vitae course offered to researchers (both students and staff) to allow them the time/freedom/space to practice leadership in a variety of settings. This particular course is one that has been sponsored by the South West & Wales regional hub of Vitae which allows places to be offered free of charge to researchers from within the region.

The course is structured to allow all the participants the opportunity to take the lead on one of the series of case studies that examine leadership in different contexts. All participants will also have a ‘buddy’ who will be there to offer one-to-one feedback. All of this will be interspersed with “leadership insights” that we facilitators will offer up in bite sized chunks to, hopefully, inspire researchers on the course to think about. These insights are really just thoughts on leadership from our perspective.

The overarching theme for this Leadership in Action course is “Authentic Leadership” and my insight is all about finding the “why” of what we do. I’ve written about this sort of thing before so it was perhaps not too difficult for me to produce a summary of what I’ll be trying to get across.

Here’s what I’ll be talking about.

Much of the insight has been taken from Simon Sinek’s book “Start with why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action” and his TED talk based on the same topic..