How to engage people so you can reach them with your message

Approximate reading time: 3 minutes

You should see my daughter doing her homework. She works carefully and with highest attention while resting with her belly on the back of a chair, her legs in the air and her tongue on her chin. She is so balanced and graceful in this absurd position that it’s a pure pleasure to watch her. Of course, as you can probably imagine, it drives many people crazy, including my mother. Homework definitely should NOT be done with anybody’s legs in the air, should it? So „why isn’t she sitting properly?” is the nicest thing my mother has to say about my daughter’s homework gymnastics.

It’s no news that people have various ways of absorbing knowledge. Some learn by listening, some by watching, some by talking an idea through, some need to write it down and others learn by practising.

What does it have to do with your science communication?

When we are asked to present our work to an audience, we cannot know what types of learners we are going to meet. As presenters, we usually have an advantage of combining at least two different ways of communicating – speaking (listening) and showing some visuals (watching). However, it happens that even those two methods combined are not enough for people to concentrate or understand your story.

I used to train colleagues in Google search techniques and tactics. Although I knew my audience quite well (not because they were my friends but because I dedicated my time in advance to analyse them) there was no way for me to know what kind of learners they actually were. I could rather expect them to sit straight (there were no legs in the air to my disappointment) but I had no idea what the most successful method would be to make them listen, understand, remember and apply the knowledge.

I have identified my goal for this training. I wanted people to take away at least one practical solution that they would apply in their lives and that would improve their information research experience. It may not sound very ambitious but it was quite realistic for a 60-minute training session.

In order to reach my goal I have carefully planned several techniques such as:

  • Asking questions
  • Giving real life examples
  • Explaining by using anecdotes
  • Surprising with unobvious facts
  • Practising

It seemed more than enough for such a short session. However, I found out that somehow there were still a few participants at each session who could not apply Boolean operators [AND, OR, NOT] properly.

I used this visual to explain the idea:

Yet, still some people had this intuitive rather than logical understanding of AND. AND makes people think that they will get more as they will have x AND y AND z all together. So they believed the best way of searching for synonyms was searching for „electric vehicles” AND „electric cars” instead of „electric vehicles” OR „electric cars”. They couldn’t see the simple truth that it is much more difficult to meet both (or more) criteria at once than to meet only one. Therefore they couldn’t realise that by using AND they were getting less not more results.

Finally, one day it came to me like a revelation. I thought about my daughter and suddenly I knew what I was supposed to do. I brought a few boxes of beads in various shapes and colours and asked people to take out of the box only the beads that met the following criteria:

  • all stars AND yellow
  • all flowers OR green
  • all hearts NOT red

This exercise proved to be extremely successful. Some people only at that point understood what AND, OR, NOT operators actually mean. They had to work with their own hands to make it possible.

From that moment, I made it my personal goal to actively search for all sorts of alternative ways trainers/presenters were using during their presentations to activate the audience and make them understand.

TED Talks were a great source of inspiration in this respect. I found out that the speakers prompted their listeners to:

  • stand up,
  • smile,
  • laugh,
  • listen to music,
  • dance,
  • imagine,
  • close their eyes,
  • raise their hands,
  • perform a simple experiment,
  • pick one of given choices.

Engaging people in your presentation and combining several ways of communication will help you reach more people with your message.

So I will continue to let my daughter do her homework with her legs in the air. This way I can be sure that she learns in a way that is most effective for her. I advise you to do the same.

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