Friday, 25 May 2012

Reflections on Twitter and timing

Earlier this year I overcame my remaining technophobia and launched Relu into the Twittersphere.  I had been putting it off, conscious of the time commitment.  But as everyone now seems to have this kind of virtual presence it seemed that we could no longer avoid joining in.  I was right of course, it has the potential to take up most of one's time, scrolling through other people's messages, clicking onto the funny pictures and even reading relevant articles from time to time.  Research programmes, organisations and government departments are generally making good use of Twitter to get their messages out with an immediacy that could never have been achieved just a few years ago.  But I have also been struck by the numbers of individuals who have taken to using Twitter to generate discussion and to build networks around topics that interest them.  I even have individual farmers "following" us at Relu.  This does seem to be a tool that allows us to communicate directly with stakeholders in a way that would otherwise be almost impossible.  It also means of course that we have to be prepared for more direct feedback, both good and bad.   Twitter has become notorious for spats, generally involving celebrities.  I don't think any of our Twitter exchanges will make it in to the headlines but I can see that this kind of two-way open communication makes it much easier for disagreements to arise.  As we have always taken the view that feedback is good, whether positive or negative in tone, I don't think this should be seen as a problem.  It may be worth remembering however, that an immediate response isn't always the best response.  Also, I'm conscious that I'm less likely to read contributions from those who tweet constantly and unremittingly about everything.  The world of communication is changing and tools like Twitter form just one element of that.  When we email press releases out now or post them on news sites they pop up almost immediately on a huge range of web news feeds across the world.  I know, because I can search for our news using Google.  As I am old enough to remember the effort that used to go into stuffing hundreds of printed releases into envelopes to catch the last post of the day, and then the hours spent scouring all the printed media to see who had used them, this seems rather miraculous.  But some rules do still apply.   Constant communication can become no more than a background hum that is ignored by the target audience, so there's a lot to be said for keeping one's power dry until there is something worth communicating.  Timing is important too, and now may not always be the best time.    Most of all, whatever tools we use to convey the messages, the content of our communication has to be right.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Writing it how it is

Recently I have had a lot of emails and phone calls from other programmes wanting to know more about how we do communications in Relu and, in particular, how we produce our policy and practice notes.  It's always pleasing to receive positive comments about one's work and the PPN series in particular does seem to be very well received.  But I also feel slightly bemused that the idea of writing these kinds of accessible notes about research seems to be novel.  I know there are a lot of scientists out there doing great work on public engagement and making research accessible, but it still isn't something that happens routinely.  Many scientists who want to write in a more popular style find it very difficult.  I remember science lessons at primary school and even at that early stage we were instructed in how to set out the account of the experiment, with the method, results and conclusion in their proper order, all written in the third person.  I could understand the reasons for this but found the format rather off-putting.  I enjoyed science but my attempts were always, I suspect, a little haphazard.  The incident when my electrical circuit caught fire is particularly memorable so it's probably just as well that I ended up taking arts subjects at "A" level.  However, my degree is in archaeology and this probably gave me my first experience of interdisciplinarity, as it required some knowledge of a range of subjects, including history, geography and physics.  If I tried to explain the principles of carbon dating now they would probably sound rather garbled, but I would like to think I still have some basic understanding of them.  This rather eclectic background means that I have never felt constrained by the "scientific" writing style that is considered necessary for publication in top journals and which, in my opinion, hampers so many academics when they attempt to write for a wider audience.  So the most useful advice I can give to others who want to produce a publication similar to the Relu PPNs is to ignore their early training in science writing and think about explaining their research to someone who is interested in the science but isn't a scientist - someone like me, in fact.