Presentation skills vital for the success of researchers

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Published: 10 Nov 2016
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Prof Daniel Mertens and Prof Alexander Schiller

Prof Daniel Mertens and Prof Alexander Schiller of Schiller & Mertens in Jena, Germany, talk to ecancertv at the EurocanPlatform Summer School on translational research about the course they have founded to help researchers to present their work more effectively and deal better with the associated logistics and interpersonal demands of collaborative work.

DM: We’re doing additional transferrable skills that researchers actually need in addition to their competence and knowledge in their field. So this course we’ve done, presentation skills, is because it’s all about getting information across which is key for being a good and successful researcher.

What gap do you think this fills?

AS: There’s a space missing. When we started, for example with our junior group leader positions, six to ten years ago we all had to learn by trying it out and we did not really get a lot of help. So we were trying to find good courses to learn, to learn how to manage, how to plan, how to deal with the people, how to deal with the conflicts and so on. Then we found out, OK, there are course but it’s still a niche and it still will be very helpful for a lot more researchers. That’s the reason why we jumped in and decided as, let’s say, practical researchers to offer these courses, transferrable skills courses, also to other scientists.

How are you getting your message across to people?

DM: Actually we’re researchers and there I’m speaking for me, for example I learn by doing things. So, yes, I hear presentations and so forth but actually I learn, especially these transferrable skills, I learn by doing them. So what we do is we give the researchers tasks to do, riddles, things that are not easy to do, and we researchers we really like doing them so we only focus on the result. Then afterwards in the review session we can actually look at the process and what happened in attaining that result. Then we can look and get feedback also from the others on how was their team going, how were leadership skills performed, how was management performed during that process. Because we all focus on the task only so that we afterwards can take apart the process and people are truthful and themselves when they actually do this. So it’s not just theory, it’s actually doing these things.

AS: And we put a lot of effort in designing the interactivity. So the interactivity, not between us and the participants but also among the participants, a lot of interactivity, exchange of ideas among the peers. This has to be designed and we follow, let’s say, a very simple truth is design the activity and design not the content because the content, this is something that has been established, more important is that people really go through and experience it.

What successes have you seen so far?

DM: One of the major advantages that we have is that we’re actually scientists. So we’re coming from the field, participants can ask us why are you doing this with us, what was your experience in this setting. This is why there has been such a strong connectivity between us and the participants because we’ve been through the same issues and so we’ve actually been doing this not only, for example, for PhD students but also post-docs, group leaders, medical doctors and we’re doing this in Germany and now also abroad – Portugal and Norway. So this is really kicking off because there’s such a strong need. When I was a PhD student, post-doc, there was nothing like this so I had to learn everything by trial and error which is really inefficient. There are much more efficient ways to learn these things. We all learn molecular biology by taking courses, going places where people know how this is being done, but when it comes to staffing, budgeting, leading, we don’t take courses, we just make mistakes all the time and then we try to learn from those and that’s inefficient.

AS: We get a lot of feedback and we are very proud also about the quality of the feedback. What people often say is that they never have attended a course where there are so many activities in there with so much exchange among the people. That’s the reason it’s spread around, especially in Germany because we are Germans, but it’s also in other countries. Especially in Germany our main clients are the big research organisations like the Helmholtz Society and also the Max Planck Society and also a lot of universities who want to deliver new programmes for their graduate students and their post-docs. We get overwhelmed by requests.

Are online modules a path you may explore?

DM: Yes. I think, as you say, e-learning is becoming more and more important, being in curricula at universities but also other teaching. So I think that’s a very good way to convey theory, the background, the fundamentals and knowledge but the point is really to experience these things oneself. So I think that’s very complementary to what we’re doing in actually doing activities with these people, with the participants, so I think that’s actually adding and complementing each other. Theory on the one side, which is important, but also then learning by exhaling, by doing, and that’s when the fundamentals come across, at least that’s what happened to me.

AS: If I may give an example – feedback training, for example. You can read the feedback rules, how to give someone a good feedback of good quality. You can also learn that in a e-learning module as well but you have to go through it, you have to see what kind of body language is important, what is your receiver, how he or she is taking that and you are then reaching a level which is then on the emotional level and this needs physical presence.

How can people find out more?

DM: You can actually find us by just Googling ‘Scientists need more’ and the way we usually do these courses is that coordinators organise these courses for participants of their institute, so local. But, for example in Max Planck, it’s also the central Max Planck that coordinates these courses then Germany-wide. So it goes via the coordinators at these institutions that actually hire, that get these courses, order for these courses.