When things go wrong

By Sam Andrews

 

So you’ve been asked to do a public talk on a particular topic by an organization on something you think is quite exciting.  Being very excited about the opportunity to do a spot of science engagement, you jump at the chance!  You spend many hours researching the most up-to-date scientific knowledge on the topic, and many more putting together this information in an easy-to-understand format.  You put together ‘eye-candy’ – photos, videos, and props – to help your audience visualise the issues at hand, and make sure that you have permission to use anything that might be copyrighted.  The talk is promoted around the organization.  You’re excited – they’re excited! The night comes around and… turnout is low.  

Very low.

Image Credit: ThinkMoncur/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

This is a situation that happened to me a few years ago when I was asked to give a talk about marine litter and pollution to a small environmental group.  Disappointing doesn’t really cut it.  I felt rejected, and that all that time I had spent preparing, wasted.  I could count the number of people who turned up with only my two hands… Including myself…and the organiser. I quickly came to the conclusion I had 3 choices:

  1. Call the talk off.  But some people HAD turned up – what about them?  Just because your audience is small doesn’t mean you don’t have something to share.  For me, this was not really an option.
  2. Give the talk in full.  The set-up for these talk events was to speak for around 45 minutes and then have a Q&A session.   With such a small group, the Q&A session would probably have been very short (even though was accompanied by tea/coffee and cake!).  This was definitely an option.
  3. Change the format completely.  Don’t give a talk – lead a discussion.  I knew my stuff (I had researched it fully for the talk after all) and many of the slide could be used to illustrate concepts that were brought up and help facilitate further discussion, but I had never done anything like this before – and I had no idea what would happen if I did.

I decided to take a risk and go for the third option – lead a discussion.  I started off by explaining to the audience that due to the low turnout I wanted to try a discussion instead.  They seemed keen on the idea so in I leapt.  To help keep things relaxed, we grabbed our tea, coffee, and cake and all introduced ourselves.  I used my ‘title slide’, which held an image of a piece of artwork which I used to start off the discussion.  You may very well recognise it.  Artist Bonnie Monteleone recreated Katsushika Hokusai’s famous painting “The Great Wave of Kanagawa”- in plastic.

It turned out that the art was a great place to start the discussion off.  I explained what the art was about, and then moved into an overview of marine litter and pollution.  Immediately the small audience was alive with questions – and I was able to use some of the slides from my original presentation to help answer them – and create more discussion points (hurrah! My work on the presentation wasn’t wasted!).  We talked about global issues, we talked about local impacts.  We talked about personal experiences.   We even talked about broader societal issues – throw-away society, consumerism, and the like (though not too much – I had to be careful to keep the discussions relevant to our marine litter and pollution topic).

A young girl (if I remember correctly she was 9 years old) came along to the talk as well.  Unsurprisingly she was the quietest person in a room full of adults!  I decided to make a point of asking her questions throughout the night.  After all, she has her own insights, experiences, and her own opinions.  I asked her about what she learnt in school about the issue, and what she personally thought of the marine litter and pollution.  I asked her if she had seen litter on the beaches or in the sea.  I even asked her what she thought we could all do to fix some of the problems.  She responded well – and the rest of the adult audience listened to her intently.  She admitted she didn’t completely understand all the things we had spoken about, but like everyone else she learned some new things that night – like the different types of plastic that are around (I brought props for people to look at), and that those nice pretty coloured balls on some of the beaches were in fact tiny plastic pieces that would only get smaller, and never really go away.  We had a brief discussion about the need for increasing environmental education in schools – and some of the challenges of doing so. 

Time ran away with us.  Our 45 minute talk followed by questions turned into a 3 hour discussion, and I think if I had not ended it there we could have gone on longer.  I asked the audience how they felt about the evening.  The response was overwhelmingly positive.  They all agreed that they had learned some new things, and enjoyed being able to share what they knew, explore ideas, and ask questions in a safe environment.  Would I do that again?  Absolutely.

 

Credit: Triratna_Photos/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Ideally low-turnout should never have arose in the first place.  So why did it?  Here are just a few of my thoughts and lessons learned:

The topic wasn’t of interest

Certainly a possibility, but I am not sure if this really was the main problem.  Coincidentally, marine litter was hitting the news a lot around the time I was doing my presentation, so it was very much in the public view.  Before even agreeing to the talk, we did a quick ‘survey’ on Facebook of the organizations’ members and other groups that might be interested.  We saw plenty of ‘Likes’, and supportive comments and private messages.  In the months prior to the talk, I even had people from these groups saying they wished they had more of ‘these sorts of talks’.

The talk was not well advertised

This was a problem.  The talk was publicised on Facebook on the organization’s group.  Unfortunately the event could only be viewed by members of that group, so when we shared the event to the other groups that might have been interested in coming too, we did not know that all they could see was something along the lines of “attachment unavailable”.  We should have made sure the event could be shared widely, and we should have done a better job at promoting it. 

The format was wrong

Whilst it is easy to talk to a group of people on a particular topic, it does not necessarily promote engagement.  Even if the people were interested in the topic of my talk, they may not have wanted to attend a formal talk.  Perhaps a more interactive session – especially outdoors – would have worked better and been more attractive.

We didn’t target our audience very well.

When I had done public talks for the organization before, we did a lot more work to advertise the event widely.  We even appeared on our local radio station to talk about it!  Turnout at that event was good.  By only advertising on Facebook, we missed a huge group of people who may have been interested in the topic but don’t use the platform.  Of course, there was also the issue that even on Facebook, nobody outside of the host’s group could see the event! 

For those who could see the event, perhaps we didn’t do a good job at making it appealing to them.  Many of the people in the group are already environmentally conscious.  Perhaps they felt that they already knew enough about the issue of marine litter and pollution.  It may have been that whilst they supported the event, they did not feel they would get anything out of going.  Others may have felt that there was nothing they could do to solve the problem, even if they cared.     

 

Sam is a marine conservation biologist/ecologist and marine science communicator.  When she is not talking to people about the ocean, its inhabitants, or its importance to us, she can be found at Memorial University of Newfoundland where she is doing a PhD.  Her research focuses on population connectivity, dispersal, and metapopulations, and their application to marine protected area networks, right here in Canada.  Twitter: @hobosci