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Developing your engagement skills

Whether you are a complete beginner or an experienced practitioner, it can be too easy to put thinking about yourself and your own needs to the bottom of the ‘to do’ list. This may not serve you in the long run; we all need to keep our skills up to date.

Planning your development has many advantages. Some needs are not easily or quickly ‘fixed’; you may need to discuss shadowing others, arrange being away from work to attend a course, and you need time to organise this. It’s better to face a ‘skills gap’ (better known as ‘something I need to know how to do for my public engagement commitments but don't’) sooner, rather than wait until it causes you lots of time-wasting further down the line.

  • Step 1: What are your public engagement goals?

    • To start, it is often helpful to reflect on your current level of experience and what you would like to achieve in the future. The following table highlights some useful areas to consider.

    • Goals should be SMART: Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound. Examples include:

      "I want to develop and present a workshop for families around my research on renewable energy as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science in 2011."

      "My public engagement project is going well, I plan to develop a series of podcasts as an extra resource in the run up to our final event in March 2012."

    • Suggested task: After thinking about your role, experience, interests, opportunities and the time you have, can you clarify some clear goals?  

  • Step 2: Which skills and attributes do you need to achieve these goals?

    • In some ways, this is straightforward: if you want to make podcasts, you will need to have technical expertise and a good presenting style. However, there are other areas to consider, particularly around communication, reflection and empathy. These domains are critical to effective public engagement and are explored further in the public engagement attributes framework developed by NCCPE and Graphic Science.  

    • The attributes approach also makes it easier to see how developing skills in public engagement can be useful in other areas of your career for example, the capacity to build and sustain effective partnerships, adapting communications styles for different audiences and reflecting and learning from your experience.

    • Suggested task: List the attributes and skills required for your public engagement goals.  

  • Step 3: Skills audit: which areas do you need to develop?

    • The skills audit is a tool which allows you to assess which public engagement skills you need to work on. It requires you to think honestly and widely about skills and experience and not just to focus on those skills you already have and do well, applying levels to how you define your abilities. This skills audit template is a modified version of the template developed by The Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh. Your own institution may have something similar. Download a copy of the skills audit.

    • Suggested task: Create a table using the list of public engagement skills and attributes you identified. Be honest and don’t underestimate yourself.

    • After you’re done:

    • You may find it useful to highlight public engagement activities you would like to work on and develop. Skills that you feel you need to improve in and are important to you and your job/career (e.g. you’ve agreed to do this activity in a grant proposal) should be prioritised for action.

    • You can record the actions you want to achieve on a development plan.

  • Step 4: Development plan: how will you develop those skills and reflect on your progress?

    To develop your skills in public engagement, there are lots of options including, but not limited to, training courses. For example, you could plan to:

    • Simply go and find someone who knows how to do what you want to do, and ask them about it. For the flim editing example, is there a department within your institution who could provide advice? Or a local film school?

    • Look for self-teaching materials. There are a lot of resources online.

    • Read other sections of the NCCPE website and/or other resources

    • Seek out, or volunteer for, an event, activity or task that would help you develop the experience you are looking for. The British Science Association has a database of case studies

    • Find out about relevant public engagement networks or groups in your institution

    • Attend informal events, such as learning lunches and networking events

    • Your institution may host formal training courses that develop skills relevant to public engagement. There are also opportunities with national schemes such as Researchers in Residence, and many funders including the research councils provide training and development opportunities. To find out more, please refer to our Training section

    • For more in-depth development, there are also several postgraduate level courses you can access.

    • When you are planning what training or development activity you wish to undertake, it is also worth considering how you prefer to learn.

      Think about whether you like to:

    • Actively participate in activities, either on your own, or in groups.

    • Spend time reading and understanding concepts and ideas.

    • Stand back, observe experiences and then reflect.

    • Try out ideas and theories to see if they work in practice.

    • (Note: doing a mixture of activities – actively doing, theorising, reflecting, etc – can help to increase learning. It is helpful to consider your preferences but don’t just stick inside your learning comfort zone.)

    • To plan the next steps you need to take you may find it useful to create a development plan. The following template was developed by The Institute for Academic Development at the University of Edinburgh, but your own institution may have a similar template.

  • Step 5: Reflection

    Reflecting on your experience is an important part of professional development. Taking the time to regularly review and evaluate your progress makes it easier for you to identify areas for improvement. Useful things to consider include:

    • What went well?

    • What would you do differently next time?

    • What did other people think went well/ could be improved?

    • How would you describe the overall experience? Fun? Boring? Scary? Exhilarating? Tedious? Etc etc

    • Do you feel more or less confident about doing other public engagement activities? Why?

  • Practical tips

    Sheila Thompson, Head of Researcher Development at the University of Edinburgh offers the following tips:

    • Regardless of where you are in your career or how much experience you have in public engagement, DO think about where you want to go in the future and plan how you may get there;

    • DON'T underestimate the skills you already possess;

    • DON'T think development is just about attending courses - there are other ways you can develop skills and broaden your experience, e.g. using online materials, books, work-shadowing, taking part in activities;

    • DO take the initiative in developing yourself and your skills;

    • DO look for opportunities to develop new public engagement skills;

    • DO build and use networks to support your career and professional development in public engagement;

    • DO consider how you can gain useful feedback from your manager, peers, colleagues and the public groups you are interested in working with;

    • DO keep records - log all your skills, training, work activities, projects, successes, etc. It is useful to reflect on your progress and may also be something to use in an appraisal. 

      This guide was produced by Graphic Science in collaboration with the NCCPE