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.