Thursday, 21 November 2013

So, what do you do? Working on a science 'elevator pitch'

Despite the fact that I regularly write about science on this blog, I find communicating science quite a challenge and I often go away from a situation wishing that I had done a better job of answering that most crucial of questions:

"So, what do you do?"

The question can come from a variety of sources, ranging right from the hot-shot visiting Professor to an interested (or just polite) friend or acquaintance in the pub. In fact it could be almost any situation, anywhere, anytime, and you have to be ready. If you are anything like me, you will have already come across people who switch off immediately from you the moment you start explaining that you are a scientist, and what you do. On the other hand, I've had some really great conversations with people where I've felt they really got into what I was saying and I've come away with my perceptions changed a little bit too.

It's my general opinion that not an awful lot of useful conversations happen in lifts, but this science communication challenge is just like the 'elevator pitch' that I have heard mentioned quite a few times, usually as a means to improve one's communication skills. This is a 30-second to 2-minute pitch to get across the important aspects of yourself or your work (or any thing or concept for that matter). One of the skills I suppose is to get to the point by cutting through the jargon and specialized language (which on one hand empowers scientists to express themselves to one another) to reveal the true motivation beneath. I heard a rumour that there is a Pro-Vice-Chancellor out there somewhere who likes to ask a similar thing as an interview question to prospective job candidates: "How would you explain what you do to my mother over tea and biscuits?"

Typical lift conversation.
I'd argue that in most circumstances if you've been asked "what do you do?" your initial answer needs to be done well inside thirty seconds. By some reckonings that is half a side of paper in response to a four word question. In my mind the key is to have layers and then come back with more details if the person is interested.

So I've come up with this Twitter elevator pitch which fits into ten tweets. I'll tweet it from @scienceontoast around the time I post this up. The aim here is that, like with the interested acquaintance in the pub, a good way to build your pitch is to start simple and then give more information as it becomes relevant, i.e. not answer the "what to you do?" question with a fifty minute lecture. I hope that this pitch would make sense if you only read the first tweet, the first three, or all ten. And of course, we all know that science is a long story really, but even the longest stories have to start somewhere.

Mike Weir's 10 tweet science pitch:

1. I'm a scientist at the University of Sheffield. I work on plastics. I study what happens when we mix other materials into plastics. 

2. We make composites by putting additives into plastics. The composites' properties are (we hope) improved over those of the pure material.

3. Our aim is to make plastic composites that are stronger, conduct electricity, feel different to the touch, amongst many other things. 

4. Some industrial companies are interested in our composites since they may be able to make new and interesting products out of them. 

5. There is much science dedicated to understanding the behaviour of plastics and polymers (a more general term that includes plastics). 

6. My job uses radiation (x-rays and neutrons) to look inside materials and see their structure; to see how the molecules fits together.

7. For a polymer composite, we might ask: are the additives all clumped together or are they dispersed evenly throughout the material? 

8. What shape and size are the additives ('fillers')? What shape and size are the polymer molecules? Are they affected by the additives?

9. To make polymer composites industrially we need to understand how they behave, how they melt and freeze, and how they flow.

10. We hope that by understanding the structures we create, we can tailor them better to suit particular purposes. 

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