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

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

Why? and the pyramid of purpose

Why?At the end of November my good friend and colleague Janet Wilkinson from Three Times Three helped me to deliver a session for the UWE Researchers’ Forum. The theme for the forum was “toward a research active lecturing post”, a topic that concerns lots of researchers and academics. On the one hand there are staff employed on contracts to undertake research only but would like to acquire more teaching experience for their professional and career development. On the other are some early career academics who are battling with hectic teaching schedules and would like to redress the balance by devoting more time to research, again to enhance their career development.

So I asked Janet to facilitate discussions between staff from these two groups to help illuminate what they would need to think about and act upon to achieve their goals. I then asked Janet to write about it, so with permission here are her thoughts on how to frame that discussion.

I’m the kind of person who regularly craves change – I chase new experiences, new learning in new destinations and the opportunity to meet interesting people in new surroundings.  I’m really lucky that my working and home life accommodate this craving.

In 2012 I’ve noticed the emergence of a different craving – that of more stability and consolidation.  How to blend both?  Searching for a model to frame my future planning I’ve turned to books and blogs, friends and colleagues and a day spent at the Guardian TEDx in Bristol.  My work in progress is an adaptation of the ‘pyramid of purpose’ that I’ve been working with, adapting for my own needs and sharing with others – most recently at the Researchers Forum at UWE.

pyramid of purpose

Influenced by Paul Spencer’s recommendation of Simon Sinek’s TED talk and book I’ve been ‘Starting with Why?’.  Why do I want this change?  Why do I need this new experience? Why do I think I will find what I want in the direction I am proposing?  It has been helpful to start here as sometimes the lack of an answer has stopped me chasing a change that was ultimately a superficial whim; similarly it has helped me to clarify why I really wanted the change in the first place.  Drive and passion help you to get to where you want to go but are more gainfully employed when you understand why you want to go there in the first place.

Identifying why you want to do something or change something then facilitates the more practical questions of what constitutes that change and how you are going to bring it about.   If ‘why?’ is the bigger picture the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ start to dig into the detail to start to make the change.  A big picture person by nature I’ve found that David Allen’s Getting Things Done book has helped me take larger tasks and goals and to consider them in more detail right from the start make them all into a project with the concept of next action fitting neatly with the questions –

  • What do I want to do?
  • What needs to happen next?
  • How am I going to bring that about?
  • How long will it take?

The ever more practical questions of Who? Where? And When? Start to put definite actions around my goals and plans and with a clear purpose help me to structure how I am going to bring this change or plan about and where I need to be flexible and include others in the plan.

I’m keen to think about the questions Who can help me? or who would I need to know better?  I find it difficult to ask for help and yet know that I am always happy to help those who ask me.  I don’t think I’m alone here.

I’ve added discipline to the pyramid of purpose as I’m fascinated by the success I see around me when discipline is added to drive and passion to bring about the change that people identify and focus on.  My observation is that drive alone can be a powerful force but when combined with the discipline to return to the purpose, and the plan it generates, and to follow through on the actions you identify can bring about achievement for you (and those you lead) that sticks to an understanding of why you were doing it in the first place.

More to work on in 2013!

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..

Getting Your Research Noticed

At the end of September we ran another Researchers’ Forum at UWE, the theme of which was “getting your research noticed”. What we were trying to do was to provide researchers with the opportunity and space to consider how they could go about building up a reputation as a researcher.

We spent the morning in the company of Kate Tapper from Bud Development who facilitated a great session on how to answer the question that most researchers dread:- “So what do you do?”. Kate had four main messages to get across on that day:-

1) Start with why

2) Don’t throw jelly at people

3) Tell stories

4) You are wonderful

The slides she used on the day are here:-

I have written about “Authenticity & finding your why” elsewhere on the blog which explains the idea behind Simon Sinek’s concept of “start with why”; the basis of having impactful conversations with people.

I really like the analogy of not throwing jelly at people when trying to explain research; it conjures up images of researchers desperately churning out more and more data in the hope that some of it will stick in the minds of the recipient. The phrase comes from a book by Andy Bounds called “The Jelly Effect” and is well worth a read.

Much better then to have a story to tell about your research, why are you excited, enthusiastic, passionate about what you do as a prelude to trying to tell anyone how or what you do. We are humans after all and humans like stories.

Kate also touched on a number of issues around courage and vulnerability which are qualities that make us wonderful. It reminded me of a TED talk I watched recently by Brene Brown on that very topic and sums up everything that Kate was trying to say on this.

The afternoon session of the Researchers’ Forum was spent focussing on strategies that researchers from across UWE had adopted to build their reputations in two broad categories:-

1) Building a reputation through publications

2) Building a reputation through communicating to a wider audience

What was fascinating that there were many of the themes that were explored in the morning session that also came up and centred around telling stories, having something interesting to say, to take risks by publishing in more than one area of specialism and making connections.

We were grateful to the panel members, Dr Emma Dures, Professor Jonathan Dovey, Professor Robin Means and Professor Katie Wiliams for giving their thoughts on publication strategies.

Katie Williams shared these top 10 tips for academic writing:


We were also grateful to Professor Alan Tapp, Dr Carinna Parraman and Dr Clare Wilkinson who shared their knowledge and expertise of interacting with a wider audience.

Carinna Parraman used a Prezi to showcase the work of the Centre for Fine Print Research.

Clare shared thise presentation with us about the work of the Science Communication Unit with advice on how to engage wider audiences.

A final note is to say a big thanks to professor Robin Means who has been the academic lead for the Researchers’ Forum for the past 5 years and will be passing on the baton to Professor Glenn Lyons.

The convenors and Kate

The convenors and Kate

Robin Means, Kate Tapper & Glenn Lyons at the UWE Researchers’ Forum, September 2011