Many of us have given talks (or are preparing their first one coming soon) at academic and non-academic events. What are the differences and what should we expect from both types of events? How can early career scientists (ECS) navigate through these two types of events?
I wrote this blog post as an attempt to encourage more ECS talks in non-academic events and share my experiences, hoping that it might motivate and guide other ECS.
Academic events like scientific conferences are more likely than not the heaven of all scientists
It is during at these events that we get to share our research methods and results. Such meetings present a massive opportunity to learn from and discuss with each other, with high social and scientific benefits to early career scientists (ECS) (Hauss, 2021). How to effectively present our research work at conferences is a necessary skill that we start developing early in our graduate education. In this respect, sessions at the traditional conferences such as the International Association of Hydrological Sciences (IAHS) Scientific Assembly or the European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly are excellent learning and training platforms for ECS.
In my experience as an ECS in hydrology, listening to invited talks (aka highlight talks at EGU GA or keynote lecture/speech in other events), in particular, has been one of my must-do activities at the scientific conferences. These talks happen to be both instructive and enlightening with respect to many competencies required for giving successful presentations (on top of the knowledge insights on the talk’s topic). In addition to the invited talks, I also find the regular presentations of some hydrology researchers very admirable because their presentation style, language and poster/slide design influence my communication and creative thinking skills positively.
From the perspective of an invited speaker, giving a highlight talk at a well-known academic event must be quite flattering. It naturally builds motivation and extra recognition – both very important for ECS. Essentially, invited talks are not very much different from regular talks in that the audience of both is usually fellow scientists and researchers around the world. However, compared to academic events, talking at non-academic events to an audience of practitioners and policymakers is a more compelling and unique experience.
Why’s and how’s of talking at non-academic events
My definition of non-academic event is all the meetings with no (or limited) academic context and with the majority of audience being non-academics, i.e., practitioners and policymakers.
Some examples are forums that bring together professionals in the industry and research community, expert group meetings with stakeholders (including local and international non-governmental organizations, NGOs) and intergovernmental meetings by the United Nations (UN) organizations. The latter type of meetings is increasingly attended by the representatives from academia and research institutions, partly due to the major role that science plays in contributing the global agenda set by the landmark UN agreements: Sustainable Development Goals (17 SDGs), Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, and Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
These non-academic events are shaping the spaces for integrated science-practice/policy to varying degrees. Thus, the presence of ECS in these meetings, specifically through invited talks, is crucial for nurturing a collective transformation within academic and political landscapes.
My own experience in hydrology
There were several occasions where I was invited to give talks and/or presentations at non-academic events concerning hydrology. I found these experiences to be both empowering and challenging. Empowering, because they introduce examples of non-academic career options into your scientific mind. Challenging, because what’s expected from you is (usually) not a typical academic conference content with fancy figures and numbers from your PhD or Post-doc research, but more of a synthesis or overview kind of statement with reference to the needs and expectations of the national as well international stakeholders.
The events I contributed to are quite diverse in terms of scope and audience as well as the take-home messages (T.H.M.). Each and every talk experience enriched my perspectives not only professionally but also personally.
I gave my first invited talk to the students of the Psychology Department at the Baskent University in Ankara as part of their “42′ seminar series” (May 2018). Together with the organizers, we identified two objectives for my talk: (1) to inspire the BSc, MSc students in social sciences with an international career example from hydrological sciences and practice, and (2) to introduce them how social scientists can contribute to these fields. During my talk (20-min), I showed photos of rivers and conceptual figures to capture their attention. T.H.M.:
- Hydrology is in your daily life, listen to the sound of water and take a look at the sky whenever you can.
- Take every opportunity to expand your mind through international exchange programs and voluntary activities by youth/ECS-led initiatives.
- Don’t be discouraged by changes and challenges, never limit your potential, always trust in your intuition.
My second talk was at the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretariat in Geneva (Feb 2019). I was invited to be a panelist at the WMO Commission for Hydrology (CHy) Technical Conference “Future Hydrological Priorities and Arrangements”. The session’s focus was International Water Scene, and I titled my presentation “Universe of Hydrology” to provide a broader early career perspective from hydrology education to youth/ECS-led initiatives in water. In this intervention (10-min), I shared my criticism of the gap between research and practice. T.H.M.:
- The messy and fragmented presence of hydrology within international and national scenes requires attention.
- WMO’s Governance Reform process should be supportive of meaningful participation of young hydrologists across research and practice.
In May 2020, I gave my first virtual invited talk as part of the webinar “Transformation of UNESCO activities through: e-learning, open science and distance learning” organized by the UNESCO’s Division of Water Sciences. I used this opportunity (10-min) to give an overview of efforts within the hydrological sciences community to support open science with respect to open data, open source and open educational resources. T.H.M.:
- Dissemination and communication is central to the uptake of all efforts.
- Rather than creating a separate effort from scratch, we shall build up on existing initiatives with collaborative plans; and ECS would be happy to contribute.
- Training/education materials should be designed in line with the current hydrology science needs while connecting research into practice. Links: my presentation, session summary
More recently, I was interviewed during the (virtual) session “Managing Floods and Droughts: The Technical Challenges” organized by the Global Water Partnership, the World Bank and Deltares as part of the World Water Week 2021 (hybrid, August 2021). My intervention covered two questions: (1) Where do you see the largest potential for synergies when integrating flood and drought management, based on the 3 pillars approach: monitoring/early warning, vulnerability & impact assessment or risk mitigation & preparedness? (2) How would you suggest to better bridge the gap between science and applied flood and drought management to guide the integration of flood and drought management? T.H.M.:
- Considering that the timing, duration and the extent of floods and droughts are getting more and more intertwined, it is important that we create synergies early in the beginning when designing mitigation and preparedness measures in all levels from initiation to implementation. This should be done in a science-informed fashion.
- Catalyzing the transformation towards enhancing the science-practice/policy interface for integrated flood and drought management won’t be easy. Adoption of sustainable cooperation, collaboration and coordination strategies and communication mechanisms should do the magic needed for us to tackle this challenge.
Lastly, I virtually attended the panel discussion on “Ensuring the future of sustainable water data–for citizens, scientists and policymakers” at the UN World Data Forum 2021 (hybrid, October 2021). This session was organized by WMO, Gallup Inc., Northwestern University and UN Convention on Biological Diversity. The panel consisted of professionals from different organizations, hence reflected the diversity of water data across disciplines and sectors. I preferred not to show any slides given the short time assigned (5-min). The question asked was: As an early career hydrologist, what are some of the barriers to working for the National Hydrological Services (NHS)? What could be done to make working for the NHS more attractive? My response emphasized the value of early career hydrologists with research background in building the local capacity at the NHS for improving data management and science practices. T.H.M.:
- NHS need to reform management structure as well as operational policies to hire and support early career hydrologists with research background for benefiting from their skills and knowledge in the best way possible.
The essence of contributing to non-academic events is truly listening, understanding, talking and observing
In my roles as the ECS Representative for IAHS and EGU HS division, I gladly accepted all the invitations to contribute as a speaker, panelist or interviewee at non-academic meetings. The essence of contributing to such events is truly listening, understanding, talking and observing. Speaking to mostly non-academic audience requires intrinsic motivation and strategic mindset since the content you deliver should moderately and appropriately draw from your research background while still capturing the interest of practitioners and policymakers.
Below I summarize some important do’s and don’ts for ECS to guide them on how to give an effective talk at non-academic events. I hope these tips and suggestions will be helpful:
- Identify your take-home message(s), and build a story around it.
- Study your potential audience, i.e., identify their work sectors and/or expertise.
- Prepare a draft text to guide your talk/intervention/response. You may ask for your colleagues’ feedback – this is particularly important if you are asked to provide a focused perspective rather than a personal note.
- If the allocated time is not more than 5 minutes, showing slides might be distracting for the audience.
- Use engaging phrases and words, metaphors are a great way of expressing complex ideas/concepts in simple terms.
- If possible, ask rhetorical questions to prompt your audience to think reflectively.
- Don’t speak too fast, and take strategic pauses where necessary.
- Avoid monotonic tone, instead try being more expressive by varying your voice pitch little.
- Too much academic jargon can be disturbing or misleading, thus decrease the audience’s attention. Also, be aware of the possibility that interpretation of some terms might differ among (hydrology) experts and the general audience (Venhuizen et al., 2019).
- Enrich your talk’s pace with facial expressions.
- If possible, interact with the audience after your talk by asking and/or answering questions.
Thanks for reading this post. I look forward to meeting you at both academic and non-academic events. Bye for now!
- Hauss, K. (2021). What are the social and scientific benefits of participating at academic conferences? Insights from a survey among doctoral students and postdocs in Germany. Research Evaluation, 30(1), 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1093/reseval/rvaa018
- Venhuizen, G. J., Hut, R., Albers, C., Stoof, C. R., & Smeets, I. (2019). Flooded by jargon: how the interpretation of water-related terms differs between hydrology experts and the general audience. Hydrology and Earth System Sciences, 23(1), 393-403. https://doi.org/10.5194/hess-23-393-2019
Edited by Maria-Helena Ramos