Telling Your Research Story: Increasing Impact of Communications for International Academics in Madison, Wisconsin

Communication Skills for International Academics

Researchers and faculty members who want to improve their communication skills are one of my favorite groups to work with.  One of the trainings we offer at language connectED is our four-hour workshop on “Telling Your Research Story,” which helps participants communicate professionally to network well, represent their institutions appropriately, talk about their research in language that people outside of their field can comprehend, and improve their presentations.  Participants walk away with, for example, an elevator pitch, analogies for explaining complicated concepts in their work, language strategies for small talking and networking, and a hook to use for presentations or anytime they want to engage listeners when talking about their research.  Academics we work with report that they greatly benefit from taking time to focus on how they communicate.  And I am fascinated to learn about their research. 

Takeaways from Madison, Wisconsin 

So when the University of Wisconsin at Madison invited language connectED to conduct a workshop on “Telling Your Research Story” in May, I was excited about working with a new group of academics and seeing Madison.  Neither disappointed.  Eve Litt and I greatly enjoyed working with two terrific audiences of international graduate students and postdocs and exploring the beautiful campus on Lake Mendota, downtown Madison and trying some new food!  And even though we were only there for two days, we packed in a lot of activity with both great discussions about communicating research and some sightseeing.   Here are my top takeaways from our trip. 

Telling Your Research Story   

Whenever we bring together smart researchers focused on improving their communication skills, we always have great discussions.  And this group was super-engaged.   

How to have a Hook without being Funny 

Hooks are important for grabbing the attention of your audience from the very beginning of a presentation.  For non-native-speaking presenters, hooks have the added benefit of allowing listeners to get used to their pronunciation before the main content begins.  Many workshop participants felt pressure to start their presentations with a joke but worried that humor, tied to culture and language, might fall flat with the audience.  Eve and I outlined different ways to craft an effective hook such as telling a personal story or giving a surprising fact or statistic, that don’t rely on being funny.  Workshop participants then spent time creating their own hooks that will engage audiences every time they present. 

 Practicing Elevator Pitches with People Outside your Department 

In our interactions with academics, we often meet people who only discuss their research inside their department or lab.  We understand.  You’re busy.  But if you only speak with others as specialized as you, you might not know when you’re using jargon or explaining a complex concept in an unclear way.  I’ve noticed that when a group of academics from different departments come together, they are often surprised when their peers--other scientists and researchers--don’t understand them.  They assume that their terms are general when in fact they can be very specific. 

To help with this challenge, we design activities around talking about research with peers outside of their specialties.  In our Madison workshops, I often heard participants asking for clarification from each other around key terms while listening to elevator pitches.  We practiced multiple times so that participants can gain more confidence and fluency but also, so they can learn to pitch to multiple audiences.   As a bonus, what started as a practice networking exercise, turned into real networking as participants connected with each other and learned more about what they’re doing.   

Above: Graduate school researchers practice their elevator pitches.

Above: Graduate school researchers practice their elevator pitches.

What we Enjoyed in Madison 

Have I mentioned what a beautiful city Madison is?  Here’s what we recommend if you are fortunate enough to visit: 

1.  Capitol Tour – Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, meaning that it’s home to the state capitol building. To quote Eve, “I love a good capitol tour,” and Madison’s capitol did not disappoint.  The building is close-by, gorgeous and the tour guide taught us all kinds of great stuff like why the Badger is the state animal and University of Wisconsin’s mascot (Go Badgers!). 

Hilary and Eve hang out with the University of Wisconsin mascot on the Memorial Union Terrace.

Hilary and Eve hang out with the University of Wisconsin mascot on the Memorial Union Terrace.

2.  The Memorial Union and Terrace:  Our hosts were smart to reserve space in the Memorial Union for our workshops.  It’s an amazing building with great spaces to eat, relax and a super-friendly information desk where Madison experts can help you with advice about anything on campus or in Madison.  My favorite place is the terrace with plenty of space to sit in bright, funky chairs, enjoy a drink or meal and look out over Lake Mendota

3.  The Old Fashioned:  The super helpful folks at the Memorial Union recommended we dine at The Old Fashioned and, wow, are we glad we did!  The restaurant is beautifully done and specializes in local Wisconsin ingredients and dishes. In addition to fried cheese curds with different dipping sauces (which are way tastier than I thought they’d be) they have wonderful salads, sandwiches and more.  I had bratwurst and this amazing salad with the best dried cherries I’ve ever eaten.   

4.  Paul’s Pelmeni:  Head to this place for pelmeni, small Russian dumplings. It’s not fancy: counter-service and not many options. But where else can you get great comfort food at such a great price? Eve and I split a large combination of beef and potato dumplings with sour cream, curry powder, cilantro and sriracha for less than $8.  What can you say…we’re cheap dates! 

Thanks so much to our Wisconsin-Madison hosts and researchers for a great session and experience in your city. I’ll write soon about another observation that came out of our workshop – the role of patient advocacy in the world of medical research.  

Bridging Gaps: Examining Communication Needs and Programming for International Postdocs

For the past five years, language connectED has been running communication workshops for postdoctoral researchers at various universities around the world. In our work, we found that non-native English speakers (NNES) typically had different needs when communicating their science and research than that of native English speakers (NES). So, this year, we conducted our first national survey of international postdoctoral researchers to ask them about their English language needs and available programming at their institutions.

We strongly believe that the best advocates for these important scientists are the scientists themselves. Our work strives to provide them with the frameworks they need to tell their science story to broad audiences and communicate it with confidence. And so, we conducted this survey to see how NNES perceived their language skills and what kind of training workshops would be helpful for them. 

Our work was accepted as a poster presentation at the 2018 National Postdoctoral Association in Cleveland, OH and as a presentation on how to tell your science story. See what we've been up to by reading our data analysis report, taking a look at our poster, or checking out our slides on telling your science story

Skills for Community-Centered Librarianship- National Advisory Meeting


Free Library of Philadelphia coordinated the first meeting of national advisory council members for their IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program grant award. language connectED had the privilege of facilitating this curriculum development meeting with library researchers, directors, and leaders from the US and Canada. The group engaged in lively, engaging discussions around skills all library staff members need to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The day resulted in a group consensus on directions this curriculum should take and a call to continue communication with one another for support, ideas, and future collaboration. We'd like to thank the Free Library of Philadelphia and their national partners for their knowledge and experience as we move forward with this exciting project.


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Working with the Free Library of Philadelphia

Read the following post from our team member, Tennyson Tippy, to learn about one of our new curriculum development projects.

As the needs of people and patrons evolve, libraries everywhere must adapt to shifting cultural expectations. Long gone are the days when a librarian could sit at a reference desk, fielding questions from patrons throughout the day. Libraries now must work to define their purpose within their communities and with their communities. To foster this change, in 2017, The Free Library of Philadelphia received a Laura Bush 21st Century Library grant to improve community engagement skills among library staff. They hired language connectED to develop the curriculum and facilitate the workshops over the next 2 years.

But to develop this program, language connectED needed to better understand the experiences and needs of library staff. So, I assisted as a researcher, interviewing library staff throughout the city,

I worked with Language ConnectED to develop a six question interview script. Our goal was to ask specific but open ended questions intended to draw insight and reflection from these library professionals regardless of their circumstances. Yet in a large, diverse city like Philadelphia, though library professionals may share a title and job description, their experiences can vary profoundly from branch to branch. For instance, the job duties of a children’s librarian working in a predominantly middle class neighborhood may differ dramatically from one working in a low income neighborhood with high crime rates.

In order to gain the most insight into the lived experiences of these professionals, I occasionally needed to go “off script” in order to get a response that would provide the insight and reflection needed to help guide the curriculum development.  This is referred to as conversational interviewing.

In conversational interviews, the interviewer reads question as worded and then uses whatever words necessary to convey the meaning of the question. This approach can sometimes take longer than standardized interviewing, where questions are worded exactly as asked with little input provided from the interviewer. However, for our purposes, we sought to engage our respondents to share as many details and insights as possible. We weren’t seeking to find specific data points or measurable outcomes so much as insights that would help us to create an inspiring and relevant training program.

The qualitative insights gained from these conversations will support the design and development of the professional training program to be launched in 2018.

2017 Year in Review

We brought 2017 to an end with Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, PA. This brings us to over 300 scholars trained in effective communication. We're looking forward to presenting research about international scholars' communication needs at the 2018 national conferences for NPA and NAFSA. Thanks to our partners for the opportunity to work with such dynamic groups. Happy New Year!

National Postdoc Appreciation Week

The University of Pennsylvania invited us to deliver two workshops around science communication for their biomedical postdocs for National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2017 (Becky, our Chief Learning Officer is in the photo). It's always a pleasure to hear about the amazing work being done by these researchers. Our participants were able to practice telling their research stories those outside of their lab and the research world, in their efforts to inform others of the important work that they do. 

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Edible Alphabet Goes to Denmark!

language connectED had the pleasure of partnering with the Free Library of Philadelphia (FLP) Culinary Literacy Center to develop, design, and implement a new library initiative, Edible Alphabet, in 2015. Edible Alphabet is a complementary learning supplement for existing English as a Second Language Programs in the Philadelphia community.  Edible Alphabet materials utilize the state-of-the-art industrial kitchen at the Central FLP to assist learners in building their language, culinary skills, and self-confidence through the kitchen. The curriculum focuses on how to read recipes, measurements in English, language for discussing menus, how to ask for ingredients in the grocery store, and how to cook nutritious meals, among others. By engaging with the universal medium of food, learners begin to acquire vocabulary for ingredients, measurements, and cooking. Then learners practice their English speaking skills while collaborating in small groups during language exercises and food preparation. And the best part? Classes end with a taste test of the recipe that learners cooked and a conversation about flavors, colors, and textures of their dish.

Recently, the innovative program was selected to present to the international Library community at the Next Library 2017 conference in Denmark, June 2017. A group of our  library partners from the FLP, led by Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Culinary Literacy Center Administrator,  presented on the Edible Alphabet program. The presentation was met with intrigue and curiosity on how to take this program to libraries across the globe. While expansion to that level is not on the radar (yet!), the Edible Alphabet has branched out to two additional library branches in Philadelphia this summer, using a mobile kitchen to help facilitate the cooking. Congratulations to our partners at the FLP on their presentation! We look forward to our work on the Edible Alphabet program as it continues to develop.     

Beware of the Silo

In our work with international postdoctoral researchers, we have found that many of them are looking for opportunities to improve their cultural and linguistic skills outside of the lab. Postdocs are often so busy, it’s difficult to find the extra downtime to find opportunities to improve these skills.They often feel ‘silo’ed’, that is they exist in two spheres - their labs and their homes.Though universities are abundant with clubs, activities, and centers to foster experiences outside of the lab, there are so many choices, it can sometimes be easier not to choose.

Because we were personally curious and because we hear about amazing research that can save and change lives,  language connectED team members attended a free workshop on entrepreneurship and funding by the Founder Institute at the Pennovation Center at the University of Pennsylvania. We attended to see how this incubation center could benefit the researchers with whom we work and provide them with some information about places to find outside of their lab. We found that this type of university resource is an opportunity not only to improve their cultural and linguistic skills, but also for them to collaborate and perhaps take their research to the real world. In fact, in one coaching session, Becky was able to share this information with a Biomedical Postdoc from UPenn who is currently completing research in order to introduce a product to the market in the near future. In their coaching session, they worked on the researcher’s product pitch and planned how she could incorporate Pennovation workshops into her schedule. In this way, she could get out of her ‘silos’ and practice the cultural and linguistic skills she needs in order to realize her dream of making  people’s lives just a little bit better with her research.

Incubation centers are present on many campuses around the world. Are your postdocs aware of this interdisciplinary resource so they can get out of their silos? Tell us what is happening at your institution that can help postdocs jump start their careers and broaden their experiences.

Virtual Communication in the 21st Century

Virtual Communication in the 21st Century

language connectED just launched our third offering of Building Language Skills and Strategies for Successful Communication in the 21st Century at the University of Pennsylvania Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs. Postdocs, scholars, and researchers join for an intensive series of workshops to improve their communication skills when using email, conference calling, or virtual presentations and meetings.