17 January 2020

Spinner Public Engagement and Media Training event

A blog about the Spinner Public Engagement and Media Training event, hosted by the University of Sheffield, written by Cameron James, ESR6.

The Spinner project received its funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme; that makes me, Cameron James, a publicly funded researcher.

As a publicly funded researcher, I have a responsibility to share my work with the public, to engage with them in conversation and to demonstrate the public-value of my work. However, living inside the bubble of academia, it can be an incredibly daunting task to reach out and start that conversation.

At the Spinner “Public Engagement and Media Training Event”, I took my first steps in tackling that challenge, by discovering the opportunities and developing the skills that will assist me in disseminating my research to the public.

Improving the public understanding of science is an investment in the future, not a luxury to be indulged in if and when resources allow.

The Public Understanding of Science

A report by the Royal Society, 1985.

The opening activity of the day was a workshop on public engagement events, where we were tasked, as a team, to develop a plan for a Spinner outreach event. The workshop was delivered by Fran Marshall, from the University of Sheffield’s Partnerships and Regional Engagement team. Fran could share her experiences in organising public engagement events ranging from Pint of Science to the Festival of the Mind.

With Fran’s guidance, we learned the importance of clearly defining the objective of the event, tailoring the event to this objective and evaluating the success of this objective. Above all else, the most important thing is to know what message we are trying to deliver to the public, and to know how we plan to deliver it.

In addition to learning from Fran’s experience as an event organiser, we also had the opportunity to talk with Dr Enrico Dall’Ara, a member of the Spinner staff and supervisor of ESR5. Enrico spoke about his experiences as a participant in Pint of Science.

Spinner fellows with Dr Enrico Dall'Ara
Spinner fellows with Dr Enrico Dall'Ara

Our final speaker of the morning was Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala, who told his own story of how engaging with media influenced the path of his research career. Starting with the On-Screen Talent Market at Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sam’s media journey has taken him to the One Show, Sunday Brunch and Dear Lovejoy. He speaks from experience when he emphasises the importance of being proactive and strategic in approaching potential media platforms or collaborators.

One of the take-home messages from Sam’s presentation was to never underestimate the power of a well-crafted tweet. He proved this point with an anecdote of how one single tweet, mentioning how he used FormLab’s products in his research, led to him becoming one of their ‘international 3D printing ambassadors’.

Craft your posts carefully.

Dr Sam Pashneh-Tala

In the afternoon session, Hannah Postles and Sean Barton, from the University of Sheffield’s media team, arrived to coach us on media interaction. We began the session by focussing on press releases and had fun trying to come up with catchy, jargon-free headliners to describe our research. After press releases, we began to look at opinion pieces, with a particular focus on The Conversation, an independent news source for academics to report on current affairs that relate to their area of research.

For the grand finale, we were each placed in front of the camera for some hands-on interview practice. From his safe space behind the camera, Sean opened the interview with a simple “So could you start by telling me who you are and a little bit about your research?”. What started off as a gentle conversation quickly became a game of fielding and countering questions on ethical and technical issues, all while trying to remember the tips and tricks we had been taught about controlling our body language and the direction of conversation.

Although it felt like much longer, the ‘trial by fire’ lasted only a few minutes. While watching the recording afterwards, I was proud of the confidence with which I delivered my answers. It has to be said that my interview technique is in no way perfect, but at least I now have an idea of how I need to improve.

The Spinner Public Engagement and Media Training Event was an excellent learning opportunity. When I arrived at the start of the day, I may already have understood why I needed to engage with the public and media, but I was lacking in the knowledge of how to initiate that conversation. The day’s activities impressed on me the importance of being proactive in reaching out to the public and media, and have helped me to develop the essential skills for participating in these activities.

The day was awesome. I loved the interviews… mainly watching the others!

Chloé Techens


On behalf of the Spinner ESRs, I would like to thank the speakers for sharing their time and their expertise. I sincerely hope that we can put your advice to good use over the coming months.

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