Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Beer and Ideas: Presenting research to a general audience (Sarah Hayes)

Before the microphone at the pub
Photo by Marcella Carragher
As a historical archaeologist it's very easy to get stuck in the past. Being included in the ‘History Matters’ series for Melbourne Free Uni was an opportunity for me to reflect on the current relevance of my research and share it with an interested audience over a glass of wine.

But talking to a general audience was a new experience for me, and the preparation turned out to be quite different to my previous academic papers!

Suddenly, I found myself thinking much more about the audience, hooks, and narrative.

About unleashing my academic third person distance from what I was discussing and putting myself in the picture.

About being a little creative - gasp!

I thought I'd share a bit about my experience here.

But what is Melbourne Free Uni?

Melbourne Free University hosts special seminars and six-week courses on a range of topics. As the name suggests, it's free and open to anyone who's interested.

Sessions are generally held at the Alderman Bar in Brunswick East - hence the beverages!

My session was part of a course held by La Trobe’s Archaeology and History department on ‘History Matters’ covering how history defines us in the present.

The Audience

My first step was to put myself in the imagined audience’s shoes. What would they want to hear? What would be of interest to them? What concepts would make sense to someone new to archaeology? What others would require further explanation? This Thinkwell volume came in handy while I was thinking through all these aspects.

I also thought about how any slightly controversial ideas might come across and how to handle them in a nuanced way.

The Idea

It took me some time to whittle this down to a manageable topic: 'How the Gold Rush shaped our relationship to stuff'. The process was really about reflecting on the current relevance of my work and what makes my research unique or different.

A big sheet of A3 paper and running the ideas past friends and colleagues helped, too!

Putting Myself in the Picture

I wanted to put myself into the story, not just as a researcher but also as a human with a great interest in how and why we do things. In particular, how we consume things. This is not something I’ve ever done in an academic presentation, but this really helped to engage the audience.

The Hooks

Now, it might seem obvious to you, but I hadn’t really thought about ‘hooks’ in the context of my academic research before. It was fun to play around with hinting at things to come and I largely used the trick of posing questions as my hooks.

The Narrative

Weaving a narrative was also something quite new to me and I carefully considered plot, structure, and a story thread that would flow through the whole talk (download How to Write History that People Want to Read from the library for a brief and helpful intro).

I didn’t want to have too much background or theory upfront, so I wove my case studies in with the argument from as early as I could.

Posing questions, referring back to them, and expanding on them as the talk progressed really helped to maintain momentum for my talk.

The Zone Out Factor

Have you ever given a talk only to have someone ask you a question at the end that you definitely remember covering? It’s hard to concentrate for the duration of a long talk.

A bit of healthy repetition helps the audience out, but don’t be too obvious about it!

What Did I Learn?

So, what did I learn aside from ‘it's a great idea for an introvert to have a glass of wine before delivering at public talk’?

Translating research for a general audience is, I think, particularly important for a social science like mine to convince others of the value, contribution, relevance, and currency of the discipline. Something that is also vital for obtaining external grants. So, it proved to be a great exercise in thinking about where my research might go in the future.

Preparing for the session also helped me carve out the purpose, heart, and driving ideas behind my research.

Plus - most importantly - thinking about my research more creatively and talking about it in a relaxed environment was great fun!

So, why not consider a general audience talk about your research?

The ‘History Matters’ series is still on. Check out the flyer for details of the remaining sessions.

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Sarah Hayes is an historical archaeologist who researches quality of life and social mobility in 19th-century Victoria through the lives, homes and rubbish of everyday people. 

She has worked on two previous Australian Research Council projects, as a tutor, in consulting archaeology and in the management of moveable heritage in the museum and cultural heritage contexts. 

She is currently an Australian Research Council 'Discovery Early Career Researcher Award' recipient in Archaeology.

Sarah tweets at @SarahHresearch.

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