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Researchers learn about communicating with others

Toronto workshop led by Harvard theatre prof who passes along tools of the trade.


The participants stand in a circle and toss a ball to one another. Some fumble and drop the ball while others break out in quiet fits of laughter.

This isn’t a group of school children, as you might expect, but faculty members who had gathered at a downtown Toronto hotel for a two-day workshop on how to improve their communication skills.

Leading the group is Nancy Houfek, head of voice and speech at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University. She stands at one end of the circle, tall and poised, ready to pass along some tricks of the trade used by actors and seasoned communicators.

“You can have the best ideas in the world,” Ms. Houfek Tells the crowd. “Without the ability to communicate those ideas, they stay within your own sphere.”

Good actors aren’t those who are practised in the art of pretending, she says, but those who can connect with an audience. “The act of presenting is really not about you or your science,” she explains. “It’s about how [the message is] received.”

To illustrate her point, Ms. Houfek asks the 21 participants to repeat the ball-tossing exercise, this time while making eye contact with the person they’re throwing the ball to, and silently reciting the following phrases: “Are you ready? Here it comes. Did you get it?” The throws became slower and more precise, and no one drops the ball.

In another exercise, Ms. Houfek, asks participants to introduce themselves and explain their work. Some speak quickly while others look down at their feet and mumble. Under her guidance, they learn to make eye contact, to speak slowly and to distill their message to just three sentences. “It’s counterintuitive,” says one participant, because scientists are trained to be thorough and precise.

But public speaking is a different ball game, explained Ms. Houfek. “It’s not how much information you get out; it’s how much information you get in.”

For much of the morning, the researchers learn about appropriate hand gestures, enunciation and body language. Ms. Houfek teaches them breathing exercises, narrative structure and storytelling techniques. They also discuss the appropriate use of the ever-popular PowerPoint. Think of it as “set design,” Ms. Houfek advises.

The Science Leadership Program was conceived of and designed by Ray Jayawardhana, professor of observational astrophysics at the University of Toronto and senior adviser to the president on science engagement. Its aim is to provide academics from across Canada with the skills to communicate with media professionals, potential donors, government officials and the public.

“As academic scientists, we focus so tightly and strongly on what we do,” says Dr. Jayawardhana who will soon take up a new position as dean of science at York University. “But we don’t always find ways to communicate why we are so excited about what we do to a broader audience.” Even those who have the inclination, may not have the necessary tools to do so, he says.

One of the inspirations for the program came from the Leopold Leadership Program at Stanford University, a similar workshop for environmental scientists. Over two days, participants in the U of T program took part in sessions on strategic thinking and on connecting with government. They also practised their new skills in a round-table discussion with science journalists.

There is clearly a demand for the program; Dr. Jayawardhana said it receives three times as many applicants as it can accommodate. Although largely targeted at early- and mid-career faculty members in the sciences, engineering and medicine, a few senior scientists took part in this year’s program, held April 23 to 25.

As the head of a newly created research centre at U of T, Timothy Welsh, associate professor of kinesiology and physical education, says he signed up for the program to develop his ability to communicate effectively with potential donors. He was a little apprehensive at the start, he admits, because he’s “not much of an actor.” But he found the advice helpful, particularly in reinforcing public speaking skills such as slowing down, enunciating and using personal anecdotes as a means to engage an audience.

As scientists “we haven’t been trained on how to communicate” and how to deliver a complicated message in a clear, concise style, says Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at U of T. The session helped provide her with “the toolkit we need to disseminate [our information].” Some of the tips, she says, can also be applied to lecturing.

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  1. Philip Hultin / April 30, 2014 at 12:33

    In my department we have required all our graduate students to take a course (which I currently teach) on scientific presentation skills. We try to get them thinking on exactly these lines, and while I have never had them tossing a ball, my message to them is the same as the one Nancy Houfek is giving.

    Effective communication is not something to be taken for granted, and we should not be surprised that there are specific techniques that can develop the skills for public speaking.