Should scientists learn to pitch?

By Eloise Mikkonen

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Innovation and Research Communication Competition

At the beginning of June 2016, I was selected as a finalist in a competition about innovation in scientific research communication. The reason for my nomination was specifically related to my crowdfunding campaign on Walacea and the supposedly novel way I communicated my Alzheimer’s research to the public. The campaign involved a short video which I did in the lab, some written text and offering a few perks to people who supported my work from seminars to a simple postcard. As a result of the campaign I found that people were actually quite curious about my work and interested in what I had to say about it.  Before the campaign I’d assumed that talking about my research with any level of details was likely to be a conversation killer!

The competition  was a fun and enjoyable experience and the winner took home €3000 (which would have been nice). The run up culminated in an online voting system, which I’ll admit I wasn’t prepared for – it involved background work and lots of marketing to my network.  As the only single individual of the 6 finalists (the rest were organisations or collective groups), I was largely doing it on my own which was tough, but I was proud of my efforts and really want to thank my friend Iita for nominating me, the organisers for selecting me, and of course everyone who has supported me throughout the whole (crowdfunding) ordeal! I came runner up out of the 6 finalists which is a a great achievement for me.

This whole event and the social and research aspects of the concept of research communication were very new to me. I took on crowdfunding as a means to acquire financial support and continue the research I enjoy, and learnt the basics as I went. The further on in my campaign, the more I realised what was at stake,  what was required and that more effort lead to more financial support.  In addition good communication was vital! The campaign also gave me a broader view on things that go wrong in science and how engaging the public is a useful and important part of being a scientist.

So, should scientists pitch for funding?

Startup @ Reeperbahnfestival

During the Competition day, I took part in a workshop on the ABC in Pitching. In science, this is not a particularly strong point of interest. People give presentations on their work at conferences and seminars, and some also lecture to students or teach laboratory groups. They usually involve one topic and range in time from 20 minutes up to an hour or more. Plenty of time to get around to what you want to say, and also on the odd occasion to bore people’s pants off.

Pitching is what I imagined entrepreneurs do to get funding to support their business idea and get it off the ground. Wait. Those essential elements are what we as scientists are trying to do. Once you get the ball rolling with support and publications, then things usually take on (to some degree) a life of their own. But in the beginning, you have to put in the hard work.

I now realise more than ever that pitching should be an integral part of a scientist’s every day means. ‘Elevator pitches’ should be the correct way to grab the attention of funding agencies as well as members of the public through crowdfunding and make them interested enough to read on, ask questions and hopefully potentially fund you.  Entrepreneurs would never send a full business plan to a potential investor from the gecko, they send pitch decks, executive summaries and arrange meetings and events…this system works for business so just maybe it could work for science and save everyone lots of time in terms of writing and reading grant proposals?! And infact, this is the system that crowdfunding is using where scientists can create a 5 minute video pitch about their work than a more detailed explanation of what they plan to do.  It worked for my campaign and perhaps with even more pitch practice next time it could work out even better!

Are women taking the helm in Science Communication? 

On a side note, at the competition one thing that struck me about the whole event was the gender difference. The majority of the people there either representing the finalists, or listening and at work promoting science, were female. There was a massive majority of women participants – almost to the realm of 90%!

I was surprised and commented on a number of occasions to different individuals, both male and female, and there was a general consensus that others were surprised too. One comment from a fellow (male) contestant was that if women are going to be the face of science, then that would be okay by him. Is it the age where we start making science sexy too, I wonder? Although that thought shocks me a bit and some of the kit we wear may need a bit of design work…

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I wondered whether this was just a product of the fact this competition was held in Finland with primarily Finnish participants, or whether science communication is primarily undertaken by women throughout the world. A quick google of the topic seems to suggest that “women are more suited to communicating due to their natural style of communication,” thus indicating that perhaps it is not a phenomenon known only to Finland.

In any case, I must admit that I myself have found a fair amount of satisfaction and pleasure in sharing my research and also my experiences through my crowdfunding campaign, radio, magazine, newspaper and tv interviews, as well as this blog, and the continual contact I keep with my supporters and followers. I hope that I continue to be as well received! Thanks for tuning in again!

 

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