I have been speaking my brains rather often recently. In addition to the standard mid-project research paper, I’ve spoken about my work to a student group, a local history group, and a local community group. On one hand I do this out of a sense of obligation. I believe it behoves me as someone who existence is ‘publicly funded’ (more so at some times than others) to talk to people about what I do. But I am also of the opinion that having to recalibrate my work to engage different audiences is a useful exercise. I will freely admit that I have a number of stock talks and sections of talks which I wheel out on these occasions. But how they are woven together and which bits of each paragraph make the final cut, depends on the audience that will be before me. Going through this process of editing helps me, I think, get to the heart of what my work is about. Given that most of my time is spent researching on the fringes, with the core of my research left untouched and safely filled in my mental out tray, talks such as this force me to return to the basics, refine how I communicate the basics, and – ultimately – feedback into how I discuss the basics in my academic work.
In a way this is not dissimilar to that old chestnut supervisors often give their supervisees before heading to their first big conference – make sure if someone asks what you do that you are able to describe your research in a sentence. Although this flattening of nuance can seem a little counter-intuitive, it is necessary. Without telling people the basics first they are not going to get the nuance.
So I implore you, if you have yet to give a talk at a local club, heritage institution, or gallery then go and do it. I promise you’ll get something out of it. And if not at the very least you’ll be bought a drink, dinner, or – if you are lucky – both for your troubles.