December 14, 2017

Public Engagement 101

“An old man sitting on a stool can see farther than a young man who has climbed a tree”. This is a saying that comes in various forms, all of which expresses the value of experience. Indeed, it is hard to argue the logic behind it. It is the reason prominent reviews, self-help articles, advise columns and “101” type pieces are written by persons who can boast of a significant number of years within the field.

With that being said, I am going to take a step into the radical lane and say that there is room for advice and ‘101’ pieces to be written by noobs in any given field; in this instance the chosen field is public engagement. I say this on the basis that the memories are still fresh, the experiences relevant, and the wounds from hard lessons are yet to heal, its too early to call them battle scars. So after 4 years of active involvement in public engagement with science from two countries (yes, I still consider myself a newbie), this is what I have learnt;

Service providers are like skittles…

… and everybody loves skittles, those chewy little balls of sugar that leave behind nothing but pleasure. In the midst of this sugar heaven are some sour ones that just cause you to involuntarily squeeze your face.

This is what service providers are like. Whether it is the caterers, transport, equipment hire or even booking a venue; some leave you with a smile and others provide the service that cause you to involuntarily squeeze your face. With skittles, you have a color code to warn you but with service providers there is no such thing. The only warning you get could be the night before, when you call the caretaker and you are informed the venue you booked over a month ago is no longer available (yes, this happened). This can all be avoided if you…….

…Have an empire state of mind

Because of the uncertainty in service provision, when you find the good ones, you need to sign them onto your team and give them a jersey. So long as it is long term relationship, what’s good for you is good for them and vice versa.

It also means that they understand your needs and know how to work with you. There is something refreshing about calling a caterer who already knows what you want and understands the sanctity of adhering to delivery times. This is important because…..

…The world is full of liars

Everywhere you look, and some of them like to gather on sites such as Eventbrite and EgoTickets. Through no fault of their own, these sites have made it easier for people to confirm attendance at an event (usually free) and then not turn up. So for the love of God, do not, and I repeat, do not plan for attendees based on pre-registration. It is safe to say that the only exception to this rule is if there is some prior payment or deposit and even so, it had better be a hefty sum that will ensure commitment.

“DO NOT PLAN FOR ATTENDEES BASED ON PRE-REGISTRATION”

While on the subject of commitment….

You don’t need a humongous crew

What you do need is a select few that know what to do. Invaluable is the word to describe such persons. You don’t need a huge team, just a committed number running a tight shift. I have seen a whole day conference plus evening lectures organised by a core team of four and pulled off a days workshop for over 100 teens with a team of two. When doing public engagement with science, all this is possible because….

…STEM professionals are the most passionate

Whether in the UK or Ghana, you will not find professionals that are more passionate about what they do and happy to tell the world about it through publications or public engagement. If the general public holds any misconception about this, then it is because most STEM professionals are too preoccupied to organise public engagement activities. However, present them with an opportunity where they ‘just turn up and do their thing’ and you have struck gold. Many are grateful for the opportunity, so bare that in mind when thinking of how to show them your gratitude.