Sunday, July 29, 2012

Marketing for Scientists Workshop

This past week, I attended a three-day workshop to learn about marketing skills scientists like me can use. This was led by Marc Kuchner, astronomer, songwriter, and author of Marketing for Scientists: How to Shine in Tough Times (check out the website here). The workshop drew heavily on what's in the book and we were encouraged to have a look ait it too, given that it goes more into depth. Naturally, I can only say a few of the highlights here, but I purchased the Kindle version of the book and I am already seeing extra things there that are useful to know.

Day 1: Marketing Your Research
One of the first concepts we learned was there is no altruism. Altruism, for those not familiar with the term, is the motivation to contribute to others something of value usually by sacrificing something of yourself (time, energy, money, etc). It's a very noble concept, but the fact is that in this world you can't get far with it. When you give a presentation, publish your data, or release your computer code, what you do is give out something you have produced in the hopes that you will get something back. The aim may not be immediate monetary gain, but the people who benefit from you will (if all goes well) look favorably on your telescope proposals, award you grant money, give you a job, etc, etc. You have everything to gain by marketing your skills and it is in your best interest to learn how to do this effectively.

Several important concepts were covered the first day. One of the few I had some knowledge of beforehand was the elevator pitch. The idea behind this is that you should be able to explain what you work on to someone in about 30 seconds or less. As you can imagine, this can be very challenging. You really need to grab the attention in just the first few seconds. The recommendation: bring a prop. If you have something that relates to your research in any way, handing that out is an surefire way to get attention quickly. Examples are a small circuit board, a piece of iron, an acorn, a leaf, anything really. As long as you can tie it to your research, you're good to go.

Another marketing concept introduced was the idea of brands. We've all heard of brands. These are things like Apple, Bioware, Toyota, etc. But the brand is not the name or the logo, these only serve to point to the brand. The brand is the reputation, or the gut feeling you get when you consider the product. Your research idea or you yourself are a brand. When you present your project to your peers, to telescope allocation committees, or prospective employers, you are presenting your brand. It was mentioned that this was one of the most common pitfalls among postdocs. It's not just about having a catchy logo or name, you need to practice presenting your research so you address the needs of the community, whether that is other scientists, committees, or the general public.

One my favorite parts that day was a description on one effective way to present your research when at a poster. I encounter this a lot, given that I've had posters at several recent conferences. I think I may have subconsciously applied this technique on one or two occasions, but in general I do not. Now I know better and eagerly await the next chance I stand by a poster. Here's the few basic steps to the technique on effectively presenting your work:
  1- Start with something they know ("You've heard about the Hubble Space Telescope, right?")
  2- Say the name of your brand ("I'm presenting here the GALEX Young Star Program")
  3- Ask a question and wait ("So, how do you think we should search for planets?")
As you can see from the above steps, you barely talk about your research at all! What you do is put the listener on the same ground by appealing to something they know about, state your project or research, and then ask them some question. What you are doing is drawing the listener to a conversation and engaging them. The result is a more attentive audience that is eager to learn on how your ideas work.

Day 2: Presentations and Proposals
After a brilliant first day, I knew I had to come back for the next two days. Day two was about effective presentation techniques and how to write a good proposal. I'll again refer you to the book for the details, but I'll mention here some of the things that grabbed my attention.

Stellar flare around a low-mass star, an example of
a "beautiful butterfly" picture. Credit: NASA
First up was the three types of figures you need to have in your presentations. The first is the "weight watchers" figure, or the before and after figure. In here you show what happens before you implemented your research idea, and right beside you show what happens when you perform your research. This is to show that your research works.
The second type of figure is the "beautiful butterfly" figure, or the pretty picture. An artistic rendering, like the one I include at right, is a good choice. This is something with very little science value, but is eye catching and will get people interested.
The third type of figure is the family portrait. This is when you have a figure that includes data from a wide variety of sources. What you are doing here is acknowledging the work before you and making any members on the audience that worked on that feel welcome.

Marc presented these ideas and the structure of a talk with a really cool example: Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). I had never seen Star Wars the way he presented it. It's all a marketing scheme to get you to buy their product: the Force! The most astonishing fact presented was that a good talk will have a slide or two where you loose about 90% of your audience. That seemed counterintuitive and we argued back and forth on it, but the concept is simple. In those moments you show the audience how smart you are, but it's important that they have been following up to this point (so don't loose them too early), they know where you're going, and that this be only brief. This is also a good place to set yourself for questions at the end of the talk. If done effectively, the audience will leave with the impression that you know what you are doing and are the man/woman for the job at hand.

A last quick point I wanted to make was the 3 parts to a good proposal. I remember hearing something like this in my later days of grad school, but it's good to always keep in mind. A good proposal has:
  1- a single research question (what you want to answer)
  2- a research tool (your brand, for example)
  3- a team to do the work (we are the best people for the job)
Some common pitfalls are over- or under-emphasizing any one of these categories. For example, presenting multiple questions that a single technique can address is bad as you don't have enough time to justify the importance of each scientific question you address.

Day 3: Internet Marketing
The last day covered topics on using the internet to establish yourself. I didn't get as much from this day compared to others, since I'm already a few steps into the online scene, but there are still some useful things to remember.

First and most importantly: have your own research website! Even if you are on Facebook or have a blog, you need a professional website with your picture, your contact information, descriptions with pictures and videos of your research, etc. We had a quick exercise where we pretended we were in a hiring committee, but did not get a chance to read over the applications and recommendation letters in detail. Three candidates were presented. Could we use the web in 3 minutes to figure out which would be the best one for the job? I, like most others, immediately went to google and searched for the names. Two or three of the more senior members of the audience went to ADS and searched for publications, but with mixed results (too common a name, few publications but lots of citations vs lots of publications with few citations). The consensus was that we would favor the third candidate since that person had a very nicely designed website that presented everything we would want to know about them. In practice, as those who had been in hiring committees told us, recommendation letters are more important. A well-made website, however, can make a very important first impression. Are you a scientist without a website? Take a day or two and make one! There are plenty of freely accessible templates and tools you can use.

There was also a discussion about Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I wasn't already on LinkedIn so I signed up for that. It's a service that connects professionals together. The important thing about it is that you have your information there for others to find you and contact you if needed. You can likewise find professionals of all sorts there if you need advice on some topic or another. Marc passed over Twitter since it wasn't as big as Facebook. I would also add that the 140-character limit makes conversations tricky. Facebook was the favored means of relationship-building in social media. In fact, Marc created a Facebook group to discuss the idea of marketing in science and it helped him write the book. The main point of social media tools like these is to have a way to make contacts. Once you have a potential collaborator or such, it's important to take it offline. Even if you don't want to use these tools frequently, you should at least consider making a quick account giving a little bit of info and pointing people to your website or letting them know how to contact you for real.

Final Thoughts
Despite being a short workshop (1.5 hours each day for 3 days), it felt like we were given a large set of tools. While a few were common sense, there were a handful that were counter-intuitive when you first consider them and it's only when you look at it in detail that you realize how useful they are. Sometimes, it felt like these were dirty or underhanded tricks, but upon closer examination I think the reason we get that impression is that as scientists we are trained to deal with impersonal facts and concepts. If you just present the facts, however, you fill find you reach only a small audience. People are inherently emotional creatures and to effectively communicate with others and build useful relationships you need to appeal to their emotions and feelings, not just with raw facts.

I feel I learned some immensely valuable tricks and perspectives with this conference. My only regret is not knowing about this sooner when I started applying for jobs.
If you are a grad student or junior researcher entering the market for jobs and funding, you owe it to yourself to familiarize yourself with these tools. In this blog post I only covered what I found interesting, but we talked about many more topics and I'm sure the book goes into even more detail. If you hear that Marc or someone else is giving a similar workshop near your area, go check it out! 

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