Editing your elevator speech for modern attention spans: can you leave an impression in 20 seconds?
As researchers, scientists, and educators, can you summarize your research in 20 seconds? Can you paint a picture that people will understand and retain for future conversations?
We have become accustomed to the rapid fire of instantaneous information the radio, television and social media provide us. Waiting for webpages to load is no longer something that is merely inconvenient, it means the internet is probably broken or we need a new computer (see gif). Because of this massive shift in the speed which we get information, the amount of time allotted to communicate that information is shrinking.
The average air time someone in a radio/television interview is approximately 20 seconds. The general purpose of most interviews should be to understand the issue, provide relevant facts, and hopefully balance opposing views. Cramming years of research into a 20 second sound byte that is coherent is not an easy task. We need learn and practice telling our story just as we learn and practice the skills required to conduct field work or analyses. The problem is we often don't take the time or have the time to learn how to tell our stories, or at least, we don't do a great job of telling our stories well. Can you think of a compelling conservation or science story you heard or saw recently? What made it good? What made it stick?
That is where I think ecological or environmental literacy is important. And it is something that is harder to define, but an equally important component of creating a foundation we can use to tell these stories. Literacy is open to interpretation. We should do better to provide the tools to absorb and interpret, to become literate in conservation, the environment, policy, etc. Literacy has many benchmarks, but perhaps the best is the ability to teach content to others. If you are literate you not only understand but you can pass the message on. There are many superb researchers and scientists that work in academia, they are fluent in the languages of their fields of study, they publish in peer-reviewed journals. But the distribution of folks who are able to teach is, unfortunately, not synonymous with the folks who are in the limelight of academia. And along those lines, we severely undervalue teachers who are able to connect with students at a young age. Imagine a teacher who can inspire literacy in conservation and ecology to kids in elementary or junior high. A foundation in environmental literacy at an early age may make an immense difference in the future, regardless of the study or profession chosen.
When I started my path in research & science, I'm pretty sure no one ever made it clear that I should be able to summarize my project/dissertation/findings in approximately 20 seconds. The required communication for engineering and sciences when I was an undergrad made students stand up and give a short talk about some topic. Usually 15 min or more. Everyone did it, most of us probably fairly poorly, and generally I learned little about the importance of being able to tell a story succinctly and with enthusiasm. While I don't think we need to be trained as bards, I do think a critical part of doing research should not only be publishing that research, but communicating/educating. That could come in many forms, but currently, I would advocate that educating the public about an issue or interesting question is certainly less emphasized than it should be.
Communicating science is something that takes time to practice, and similar to publishing, likely involves many failures in order to improve (I remember my first presentation at a conference...). Every project should include a communication component and there should be an emphasis on learning how to not only do the research, but also to tell a story, or even better, teach one someone will remember.
Ultimately this is a difficult balance to strike. The currency of science is publishing peer-reviewed papers...for better or worse. Balancing the need to conduct solid and sometimes tedious research for future manuscripts with the need to simply get the word out and garner public awareness (and perhaps support!) is not easy, especially in the competitive grant-driven world of academia. We should be encouraging and rewarding the teachers who help build literacy from the bottom up, and the folks who excel at telling stories from the top down. The teachers who teach students to read current events, ask questions, understand the issue, and even seek out various sources of information will not only help us be better communicators in the future, but provide us with the context to make more balanced and educated conservation decisions.
As Kofi Annan said,
"Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress in every society, in every family."
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