This month I delivered an interactive workshop at the Leeds Social Sciences Institute (LSSI). To make this workshop happen, we collaborated with Katie Barclay, LSSI Communications and Events Coordinator.
This was our flagship workshop on ‘Communicating research beyond academia’. The workshop offered researchers a step-by-step framework for creating a 2-page visual summary to showcase expertise to non-academics.
In this post, I share insights from the workshop at the Leeds Social Sciences Institute and a few lessons I took away.
This workshop followed a similar structure to the interactive workshop on communicating research delivered at the University of Sheffield.
Collaborating with the Leeds Social Sciences Institute
I first learned about the Leeds Social Sciences Institute after attending the Festival of Ideas in the spring of this year. When I learned about their mission, I thought there was a clear synergy between what we do and their organisation:
“The Leeds Social Sciences Institute is committed to fostering collaborations that can produce ‘research with impact’. It supports interdisciplinarity and promotes relations with external partners in the public, private and third sectors, on a local, national and international scale.”
Naturally, I was very enthusiastic when Katie Barclay, the Communications and Events Coordinator at LSSI, approached me about the possibility of delivering a workshop on communicating research.
We met at the Tiled Café in the centre of Leeds and explored the possibility of us delivering training for their researchers. This would be based on the research communication framework that we have developed and the research support services that we offer.
Katie and I agreed that the workshop would be helpful for their researchers for three main reasons.
- First, it would offer researchers the opportunity to learn new skills.
- Second, it would provide an engaging, interactive format for learning these new skills.
- Third, it would help researchers connect with the kinds of external audiences that LSSI targets and supports.
Our assumptions were right, as one of the participants highlighted in their post-workshop feedback:
‘Having a clear repeatable structure for developing a summary made communicating my research beyond academia seem more achievable.’ Rosie Wilkinson, School of Geography, University of Leeds
Structure of the workshop
We kicked off the workshop by asking people to share reasons why they think it’s important to communicate their research beyond academia.
I like kicking off the session with this because it reveals people’s motivations for attending the workshop and it’s an easy ice-breaker for a pair exercise:
Following this, I asked all the participants:
What word springs to mind when you think of communicating research?
Participants shared words that can be grouped as:
Adjectives to describe the process: exciting, engaging, difficult, challenging, tailored, accessible, novel, necessary, relevant, relatable, memorable;
Nouns that describe various aspects of the process: disciplinary, change, progress, trust, understanding, audience, stakeholders, politicians, public, flexibility, talking, performance.
Of these words, my favourite one is tailored. Realising that every research communication effort must be personalised is crucial and shows an understanding of the process.
The rest of the workshop was then structured into three main parts:
- Preparation: steps to take before creating a visual summary
- Creation: steps for creating a 2-page visual summary
- Dissemination: steps to take after creating the visual summary
Each section included discussion, interactive exercises as well as pair and group work. The interactive work engages the participants and gives them and their ideas space to flourish.
‘I most liked that the workshop was interactive and that I got enough time to do preparation work for a summary document for my actual research.’ Sarah Joyce, Sociology, University of Leeds
‘There was a really good mix of group, individual exercises, other activities and theory.’ Poppy Leeder, School of Geography, University of Leeds
The opportunity to work with others also allows participants to access new ideas and get new insights. To further facilitate this, I always ask people to change their place halfway through the workshop. Although it’s originally met with apprehension, most eventually see the value in it:
‘My favourite part of the workshop was working in pairs and switching pairs halfway through.’
What I learned from facilitating the workshop at the Leeds Social Sciences Institute
I had a great time delivering the workshop and I especially enjoyed the conversations and rich discussions that emerged during the day.
In particular, we touched upon the increasing pressures academics have to communicate their own research. Participants empathised with one another and we all found a sense of relief in the emerging support across the university (putting on workshops like these, thanks to LSSI) as well as the possibility to work with outside organisations (such as Research Retold).
Yet, the most eye-opening aspect for me has been realising that I need to think more carefully about accessibility. I really value that participants expressed their views directly in the feedback forms and I’m keen to improve moving forward.
So in the spirit of transparency, I want to share the accessibility-related aspects that we need to improve. I hope that by being honest, other people can learn as well and ensure their events are as accessible and inclusive as possible.
So, here are three main accessibility themes that emerged and which I will focus on improving in upcoming workshops:
1. Improving the accessibility of our materials
The presentation I use in workshops can be improved in terms of contrast. For example, we have slides like these in which the contrast is not good enough and people have a hard time reading the light grey on the orange:
This presentation slide can be seen in its (un)glory in the image below
In addition, for our workshops, we offer participants a workbook, typically printed on white paper. For this workshop, I was asked to print one of our workbooks on blue paper to accommodate a participant with dyslexia. This was the first time I had this request and I’m glad I now know to ask for such special requests.
Having done this well, I did nevertheless mess up on the day by asking the person who needed the blue workbook to raise their hand at the beginning of the workshop so I could hand them the file (they didn’t attend in the end).
Reading this piece of feedback below made me realise it was not a very wise thing to do…
‘Don’t ask people with disability to out themselves in front of a group.’
So… noted in the future to be more discreet, ask the name of the person in advance and then make sure the person receives the document in a more subtle way. Sorry!
2. Remembering to ask for permission to take photos
We usually take a few photos and videos during our workshops. We use these to post tweets such as:
Today we were @UniversityLeeds for a #workshop on research communication in collaboration w @UoLSSI. It was a valuable opportunity for researchers to take time out of their busy schedules & reflect on communicating their research. Look forward to the follow-up session in 6 weeks! pic.twitter.com/5aeK7Hhp0U
— Research Retold (@ResearchRetold) October 23, 2019
We also create short videos such as this one:
We normally always ask for permission before we do so, by having a sign-up sheet or giving people the option to opt out.
However, when delivering this workshop at the Leeds Social Sciences Institute, it completely slipped my mind (although not an excuse, I admit I was a bit frazzled by a tech issue with my presentation).
From the feedback, I discovered that failing to properly ask for permission to take photos can inhibit people’s participation:
‘Taking a picture without advance notice is a bit much. It put me off speaking up.’
Looking back I obviously sincerely regret not doing this properly, but I can only learn from it and do better next time.
3. Consider sending prep questions beforehand
When asked how we can improve in the future, a handful of people mentioned in their feedback form that they would like to receive preparatory materials or questions before the workshop. Comments included:
- ‘Some preparatory work before the seminar’
- ‘Maybe get participants to think in advance about why they want to communicate their research’
- ‘More info upfront’
On the one hand, I see how it would help people digest the material and be more focused or invested in the course. On the other hand, I see three main potential issues:
Time: Researchers are already very busy so I fear that sending them info upfront may put them off the workshop altogether! No one really likes to receive ‘homework’. I usually assume that people will ‘switch on’ when they enter the room and fully engage in the workshop without advance prep.
Access: I don’t have an open channel of communication with the participants before the workshop. This means that I don’t have people’s email addresses and for obvious GDPR reasons I can’t contact people out of the blue. So for this, I would have to rely on the university collaborator to email these people… perhaps something to discuss in the future.
Inequality: I fear that if I send people homework in advance, some will come prepared and some won’t. This may lead to people feeling like they are unprepared and therefore feel shy or unwilling to engage. My assumption is that once everyone is in the room they all ‘start’ at the same level and they can engage with the material in their own way and on their terms.
Having said this, perhaps there is a middle ground and I can just send a few questions in advance.
I’m open to discussing this more broadly with anyone who attended the workshop or any of our blog readers. You can email me directly at email@example.com.
Overall, I really enjoyed delivering this workshop at the Leeds Social Sciences Institute. I enjoyed uncovering interesting insights with the participants and seeing researchers get excited about communicating their research beyond academia.
As a facilitator, I also learned a lot and discovered areas I can improve on. I am thankful to everyone who attended and who was open with us in the feedback. While I will always try to improve, I’ll also try to remember that it’s impossible to please everyone 🙂 I think this point is best illustrated by these two quotes below offered about the same session:
“I enjoyed the ‘free form’ discussion across the whole room.” VS “The workshop was slightly interrupted and derailed by comments.”
Many thanks to Katie Barclay and the Leeds Social Sciences Institute for collaborating with us and I hope we can work again in the near future.
Many thanks to Nida Noor, our Social Media and PR Executive, for providing communications support on the day.