Talking about your research in conversation

Networking and public engagement can be the key to a successful career or project, yet many researchers find it hard to talk about their work. Here Peter Kirwan tells you how to introduce your work in conversation to make it stand out.

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Introducing your research

How do you talk to people about your research? Most doctoral projects in the arts are three-year, book-length theses that do not reduce easily to convenient descriptions. Yet the ability to distil your research to its most essential elements is crucial if you want to engage other people.

Whether meeting other researchers at conferences or introducing yourself at the start of papers, a few words often need to go a long way. It is worth spending time thinking about how to talk about your work in a catchy, appealing yet accurate way.

Choose your words

Your thesis title is the place to begin. This should already be a concise description of your immediate general project. You can say, “I’m working on witchcraft in early modern England” or “I’m looking at the political implications of the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.” Then let your audience dictate whether they are knowledgeable enough for you to go into detail.

Try to avoid talking in chapters. Use conversation about your work as an opportunity to pull out the wider arguments and implications. This will be quicker and of more general interest. Spending time on nuances will be of limited interest in conversation.

Begin by explaining the thrust of your argument, then gradually increase the level of detail as appropriate. If your audience wants more detail than you can provide on the spot, you can always offer to send them a relevant chapter at a later date.

Focus on shared interests

Explore common ground first, then explain the implications of your research for the shared interest. The advantage of an arts PhD is that it will often have some non-specialist interest. Perhaps it deals with artistic works: paintings, books, films, plays. Or it may deal with well-known cultures and historical periods.

Collaborative projects, placements, case studies and practical outcomes are increasingly a part of many doctoral projects, and should be prioritised when you introduce your research. The more your work stands out, the more productive future conversations will be.

Be flexible

Tailor your content to your audience. At conferences, consider how your research relates to the conference theme or to other discussions taking place. If other papers touch upon issues that interest you, use conversations about them to introduce relevant aspects of your own work.

Be flexible with your research contexts. If your research touches on multiple fields of interest, this can give you a variety of inroads into talking about your work, fitted to your audience. For example, you might describe a thesis on early modern playbooks from a book history perspective, a drama perspective or a material culture perspective; and the ability to do all three is very useful.

Don’t try to have one catch-all paragraph to cover your work. Instead, think about how you can change your focus to meet other researchers halfway.

Remember, you are not being examined! You’re trying to make your work appeal to people you talk to.

Keep conversations going

These basic tips will give you a sense of how to market your research effectively in conversation. Introducing your research is primarily a way of making contacts, and you can and should follow up on useful conversations later. Get email addresses or Google a person if you have more to add to the conversation later on. More often than not, people will be very happy to keep in touch and find out about further developments.

“How to Write an Abstract” on the White Smoke blog has good, structured advice which uses the same priorities discussed in this article.

Image: Alliance Internationale, Wikicommons

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